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Why isn’t Boston serious about wheelchair access?

The Olympics would have required an accessibility revolution in Boston. We can’t abandon that goal.

One of the tougher streets to navigate on Beacon Hill.Shutterstock

My family returned from a fabulous visit to Barcelona in mid-June. A month later, the news broke that the US Olympic Committee had pulled the plug on Boston’s bid for the 2024 Summer Games. This is an enormous missed opportunity  for people with disabilities who live and work in Massachusetts.

The 1992 Summer Olympics transformed Barcelona, and that transformation has endured. Whatever our feelings about losing the Olympic bid, it’s important to know that the Games would have required our city to be far more wheelchair-accessible.

Boston still has an opportunity to learn from Barcelona. There, historic preservation was not an excuse for keeping barriers in place. We rode elevators in Gaudi-designed 19th-century buildings and in the middle of Roman ruins. Flat pavement has replaced cobblestones on all the winding roads in the historic neighborhoods. Beacon Hill residents should know that this did not diminish the neighborhoods’ charm, but only made us feel welcome.

For eight years I have proudly served on the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board, which was created in 1968 to ensure that buildings are accessible to people with disabilities. Improvements are required in renovated buildings unless the board grants a variance, and historical significance is only one factor in that decision.


A building should not remain unwelcoming just because it is old. Nonetheless, those renovating historic buildings with grand front staircases — town halls, libraries, churches, colleges — constantly ask for variances, fearing that a ramp will destroy the structure’s aesthetics. They want wheelchair users to enter another way. It is time for this segregation to stop. Some talented architects have designed sweeping ramps that fit historic buildings perfectly. Look at the beautiful entrances at the Museum of Fine Arts and the John Adams Courthouse. The numbers of architects who do this must grow. Historical commissions must support them.

In Barcelona, the Olympics brought improvements that meant we could easily travel on buses and subways. Here, I fear using the T because a train may be misaligned with the platform or an elevator may be broken. Instead, I drive my hand-controlled van downtown and pay $36 to park. The facts say that my fear is rational and that improvement is essential: More than 70 rapid transit and commuter rail stations still lack access.


Snow isn’t a factor for Barcelona. If it were, would the city handle it the way Boston did last winter? Often I rolled to the end of a shoveled sidewalk, only to find the curb cut blocked with snow. Kind strangers would attempt to hoist my wheelchair over the piles or stop traffic to help me cross at a driveway. We must handle the snow so that everybody can get around.

A recent experience in Cambridge was all too typical. Before leaving home, I called the restaurant and said I was coming in my electric wheelchair. Because the chair is too heavy to be lifted over steps, I wanted to confirm that the entrance was accessible. My daughter had already done so when she called to make my husband’s birthday reservation, but I knew I should be certain. With some annoyance, the employee on the phone said that I would be able to get in.

Our family approached the restaurant with excitement that evaporated when we saw the high stone step in front. My daughter confronted the manager, who replied, “It is what it is” and offered us a $50 gift certificate — which we obviously couldn’t use. Instead, we enjoyed a meal at a welcoming place with a ramp, but the evening was clouded. This happens too often.


A major problem is that businesses aren’t honest about access, whether because they don’t see the barriers (maybe the manager really thought the step wasn’t a problem?) or because they’ve always gotten away with it. I’d like to believe it’s the former, but in the summer of 2015, the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, we need to get real.

It’s time that establishments not say they have a portable ramp when the customer will hear “What portable ramp?” upon arrival.

It’s time that establishments with a wheelchair lift warn callers if it is broken — and have repairs done immediately — rather than apologize for the lack of access after the wheelchair user shows up.

And, of course, it’s time to get better about actually providing the access that people need. There are two bills in the Massachusetts Legislature that, if enacted, would show our commitment to accessibility for all.

House Bill 1021 would require medical facilities to purchase equipment — examination tables, chairs, scales, X-ray machines, and so on — and follow procedures that meet patients’ accessibility needs. Wheelchair users often do not have access to proper health care. This legislation would help.

Senate Bill 1323 would improve employment opportunities and increase the supply of accessible housing. It would expand the jurisdiction of the Architectural Access Board, which currently has no say over workplaces unless they are open to the public. This means that people with physical disabilities are cut off from potential jobs. For example, a university that was spending $7 million on a renovation didn’t have to put in an elevator leading to the fourth floor — space that included the diversity officer’s office.


It’s well past time to admit that people with disabilities deserve full lives in this state. And making sure it happens shouldn’t need an Olympics.

Carol R. Steinberg is an attorney, president of the board of the Disability Law Center, and a member of the Massachusetts Multiple Sclerosis Society’s government relations committee. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.