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In win for residents with disabilities, Boston must upgrade curb ramps across the city

Colleen Flanagan navigates down a tall and somewhat steep curb ramp on at the corner of Washington Street and Glen Road in Jamaica Plain. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Colleen Flanagan navigates down a tall and somewhat steep curb ramp on at the corner of Washington Street and Glen Road in Jamaica Plain. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A long-running civil rights movement has won a huge but quiet victory in Boston. It’ll mean millions of dollars in spending, and construction projects across the city — including in Jamaica Plain, where Michael Muehe has lived for 20 years.

“Many of the curb ramps along here, many of the intersections have curb ramps that are insufficient or are nonexistent,” said Muehe, while guiding his wheelchair down Jamaicaway.

If a “curb ramp” doesn’t slope gradually, with a specific height, and overall shape, a tiny curb can become a formidable wall. There’s one such curb at the intersection with Moraine Street.

“I’m going to show you what happens if I try to go up here — it’s not going to let me tip over backward, but it’s not going to let me go forward either because it’s just too steep,” Muehe demonstrated. “That 2 inch curb is enough to stop me from going forward.”

When he can’t get his wheelchair up on the sidewalk, he has to stay on the road.

“So when I’m going up the street, people have to slow down and they pull a little bit closer to the opposite curb,” Muehe said. “It’s Boston drivers, too. So, people honk and people look angry — ‘What are you doing holding up traffic?’ and stuff.”

And Muehe’s wheelchair is motorized. Fellow JP resident Colleen Flanagan uses a manual wheelchair. She can start up the ramp, but she doesn’t get far.

“That’s why I’m holding my wheels like I’m about to fall — because the slope is not even,” she said. “So if you’re in a manual wheelchair, you can slide down and fall.”

Years ago, Flanagan tipped over at a curb and broke her arm. It happened again earlier this month. Luckily, she wasn’t hurt.

“You somehow get a stranger to help you get your butt back in the wheelchair and you keep on going,” Flanagan said. “But the fear of what could have happened and the anger of like — it’s 31 years after the American with Disabilities Act, and the public sidewalk really almost just ruined my life … It makes it seem like you’re not wanted in that neighborhood.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 lays out how curb ramps should be built. Yet, a 2018 survey by the Disability Law Center in Northampton showed that less than half of the city’s 23,000 curb ramps met ADA specifications.

“There’s no ADA police,” said Tom Murphy, a supervising attorney at the law center, an independent nonprofit. He said the Justice Department has the authority to enforce the ADA, but for the most part, improvements have been driven by residents. In recent years, many across the country have successfully won suits over curb ramps.

Murphy represented a group including Flanagan and Muehe when they approached the city of Boston in 2018.

“We give the other side an opportunity to really work with us in a collaborative way,” he said. “And to Boston’s credit, they agreed to do that.”

Murphy’s clients and the city worked out a settlement — and a federal judge approved it last month. The consent decree requires Boston to install or upgrade an average of 1,630 curb ramps per year until all of them meet ADA standards. They’ll be prioritized based on how heavily they’re trafficked, and if they’re near public transportation or other key areas. The city allocated an extra $25 million to do the work in fiscal 2022. Officials hope to complete the project by the end of 2030, when Boston celebrates its 400th birthday.

“It will make the entire city fully accessible for the first time ever,” Murphy said.

But of course, there will be challenges.

“I always say, we’re a very old city, we’re a winter city, we’re a vertical city and we’re a very densely packed city,” said Kristen McCosh, disability commissioner and ADA coordinator for the City of Boston. “So right off the bat, we have a lot of challenges.”

McCosh knows the challenges firsthand — she uses a wheelchair. One is figuring out a way for snow plows to clear curb ramps rather than cover them. Another is the hodge-podge of state and private entities that own different curb ramps. The city can’t do work on property it doesn’t own. McCosh said figuring out who’s responsible for a curb ramp is a process in and of itself.

“One example I like to give is if you’re on City Hall Plaza starting at Cambridge Street and you try to cross the plaza to get to Haymarket Station, you have four different property owners,” she said.

Boston is home to 22,300 adults with ambulatory disabilities. Back in Jamaica Plain, Colleen Flanagan said any improvements will make a big difference in their lives.

“Disability itself isn’t a problem,” she said. “It’s the systems like sidewalks and other things that are a problem when they’re not accepting disability as a common, natural life occurrence that it is.”

But Flanagan and Michael Muehe say this is just one step in a long fight. Up next: state legislation that would close a loophole allowing some housing and places of employment to not be accessible.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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