25 years after the ADA, sidewalks still speak louder than words

Courtesy of Melody Hoffmann
Imagine that you’re in a wheelchair on Franklin. How would you get around?

Next time you’re walking around town, stop and look at the sidewalk under your feet. Notice the cracks, the curbs, the placement of poles. Now imagine that you’re in a wheelchair. How would you get around?

For people with full mobility — legs, eyes, and arms at full strength — it’s all too easy to forget about thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities. But 25 years after the passage of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the effect of the federal legislation on city streets still leaves a lot to be desired. With results on the ground lagging behind the equity rhetoric, advocates are brainstorming new ways to improve Twin Cities sidewalks.

How has the ADA changed the city?

“Tons of stuff that for sure have improved, but you always have to keep your eye on these things,” Rick Cardenas told me this week.

Anyone in St. Paul working on disability issues knows Cardenas, who has spent decades trying to ensure that streets, businesses, and public institutions are accessible to people in wheelchairs. When Cardenas started working on disability access, living on St. Paul’s East Side, the transportation landscape was grim.

“It’s having to go down the street,” Cardenas explained. “If there isn’t an adequate curb cut, then you’re riding out onto the street. If the curb cut doesn’t look like it’s safe, you go on the street. Maybe you hit an alley to get up on a sidewalk. You never know what’s on the corner. It’s a safety issue.”

ADA rules have led to a great deal of progress, at least around the more obvious issues of transportation. Two sections of the legislation — Title II and Title III — are focused on making sure that public institutions like Metro Transit, and the city’s complex urban landscape, are safe for everyone.

But it’s slow progress. Cities are only required to install ADA improvements like right-angled curb ramps, or sidewalks with “approach pads,” when major work is being done. During more superficial changes, like St. Paul’s rushed “terrible 20” street resurfacing projects last year, money for ADA sidewalks isn’t always on the table. 

New Jersey DOT
Cities are only required to install ADA improvements like curb ramps cut at right angles, or sidewalks with “approach pads,” when major work is being done.

The new Olmstead approach

The latest change in the legal landscape of disability is something called the Olmstead Act, based on a 1999 Supreme Court decision that ensured the right of “community integration” for people with disabilities. The goal is to provide more than bare-bones access — to accommodate a full range of lifestyles instead of confining people to isolated care centers.

“We want measurable goals,” Kristen Joreby, the assistant director for Minnesota’s Olmstead Implementation Office, told me. “The basic goal is to provide options and accessible transportation, so that people have cost-effective and accessible transportation choices that support the essential elements of life, such as employment, housing, education and social connections.”

Minnesota’s Olmstead plan takes on the difficult job of taking the ADA project into its next phase, where it ensures not just technical details about elevators and ramps, but actually improves quality of life for people with disabilities.

Since a 2011 court settlement called the “Jensen decision” [PDF], Minnesota’s “Olmstead Subcabinet” has brought together state agencies to think more holistically about mobility, so that, in theory, all the pieces of the built environment work together to provide options for everyone.

“Agencies have transition plans that they think about as they look at each project, ” Joreby told me. “But this is not overnight change. This will take many many years. As they celebrate 25 years of the ADA, Olmstead is a much newer kid on the block. It will take us some time to get up to speed as well.”

Moving past the checklist

Chuck Marohn lives in Brainerd, and grew up with a disabled father who had trouble walking thanks to the effects of childhood polio. He now runs a national nonprofit called Strong Towns that focuses on improving cities’ transportation and land-use decisions.

“If we look at the ADA in its totality, what we’ve done is beyond honorable,” Marohn told me. “We’ve said there’s a segment of our society that weren’t treating compassionately, and we’re not fully understanding their needs. And we got with it, and it’s been a triumph.”

Still, he sees a lot of ADA dollars being wasted along otherwise unwalkable roads in the middle of nowhere while streets in pedestrian-heavy areas remain neglected.

“Like any top-down regulation, a lot of times [the ADA] gets boiled down to checklists and bureaucratic regulation,” Marohn told me. “There are a lot of times when MnDOT has standards about how a signal will go in. It will detail all the ADA elements, the lowered curb, the rumble strip, the different things for people with vision impairments. It’ll have all this stuff and they’ll go out and build it, but it’s out in the middle of a cornfield where there’s nobody walking anywhere.”

Strong Towns
Marohn lampoons what he calls “the case of the pimped-out roundabout,” an expensive ADA-compliant sidewalk in the middle of nowhere.

While it’s easy to find places where ADA improvements seem silly, figuring out what to do about them can be difficult. One of Marohn’s key pieces of advice is that transportation engineers should spend more time listening to people with disabilities about what they want, and where they want it, instead of blindly following a top-down checklist. 

“So often an engineer who is never using these facilities is the one designing them with a little form which says ‘include that and follow this standard’ without understanding how humans will actually use them,” Marohn told me.

Green Line accessibility

Back in St. Paul, Carol Swenson agrees. Swenson leads the District Councils Collaborative, a coalition of Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhood groups working on improving access to the Green Line light rail. Swenson argues that special accessibility committees are often dead ends for reform, and that what cities really need is to include the perspectives of people with disabilities at every level.

“If [disabilities advocates] have a commission or committee, then other people don’t really have to think about it,” Swenson told me. “A project just gets referred to that group, and that becomes the end of it. It’s a way for people with authority and responsibility to say they’re doing something, but if you talk to [disabilities advocates], a lot of them feel like they don’t have a lot of power.”

In response, Swenson’s DCC began walking the walk. Last year they commissioned a study that put together a team of people with disabilities to closely examine the sidewalks around the Green Line. And they generated a depressing list of problems that maps rarely capture, including:

Over by Big Lop Liquor on Snelling, big chunks of sidewalk were missing. These are really bad conditions for a person using a wheelchair, because they slip in those potholes. It becomes difficult, and their wheels get stuck and it becomes challenging to get down the sidewalk.

There are many more examples. Despite the billion-dollar investment in sidewalks and transit, connections along Dale Street, Hamline Avenue, and Lexington Parkway remain full of problems of broken sidewalks and debris.

“[ADA maps] were incomplete,” Swenson told me. “It’s just looking and doing a survey from a different perspective that an able-bodied person frequently doesn’t think about. We’re beginning to understand through [this kind of] access survey that it’s much more complicated. ADA alone doesn’t make a place accessible.” 

District Councils Collaborative
The DCC’s Green Line map highlights accessibility issues along the route. Blue dots represent broken or uneven sidewalks; red, missing sidewalks; orange, sidewalks that are too narrow; purple, missing or inadequate curb cuts; yellow, lots of trash; orange triangles, steep grades and brown triangles, verbal indicators not working.

Dignity stripped

My grandmother spent the last decades of her life in a wheelchair, living with muscular dystrophy that had been eating away at her mobility her whole life.

Years ago, on a visit before she died, we planned a trip to see family about 100 miles away, and grandma was determined to take the bus. Getting her into and out of the family minivan had always been a challenge, and when she’d used the bus company before, its wheelchair ramps had worked wonderfully. To keep her company on the ride, I bought a ticket to sit alongside her and listen to her stories.

But when the bus showed up, it turned out not to have wheelchair ramps at all. Stuck at the station, the beleaguered bus driver and I ended up carrying my grandmother to her seat by hand. I still remember the look on her face as I held onto her ankles, as the driver hoisted her heavy body up the narrow stairs while she struggled to stay inside her Sunday dress.

As we rode south through the prairie, it was a long time before she was able to say anything again. The indignity of disability can be a hard thing to swallow. 

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Hudson Leighton on 07/24/2015 - 09:06 am.

    It’s not just the Handicapped that are helped, it’s the Deliveryman and his two-wheeler, it’s the Parent and their stroller, it’s the Kid and their trike.

    It’s anybody that uses sidewalks.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/24/2015 - 09:16 am.


    The biggest problem is that most people have absolutely no perspective on the issue. Even people who know or have lived with someone in a wheelchair lack a certain perspective. I believe that, until you spend some significant time LIVING in a wheelchair, it’s hard to even imagine how many things are obstacles to living at all. Even in light of the ADA, hotels claim handicap accessibility if they have a grab bar in the bathroom. While that might be helpful for someone with trouble walking or standing, it’s worthless for someone who can’t walk at all. Home builders claim that single level housing is handicap accessible, despite the existence of one or more steps at each entrance or standard showers. Just how does someone on wheels step over a 2 inch lip on a shower?? Designers and engineers of various structures, from public to private, could well use some time in a wheelchair to better understand the difficulties that result from designing with the assumption that all people have variously functioning, but still functioning, legs.

  3. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 07/24/2015 - 09:51 am.

    Thanks, Bill, for writing this great piece. I think about children who grow up with conditions that may prevent them from driving a car – how will they get around, as walkers who cannot drive? And that doesn’t even speak to people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility impairments. Oftentimes, I’ve heard that people with mobility impairments NEED to drive and CANNOT walk, which justifies our automobile-exclusive land use (the untested and failed suburban experiment of the last 60 years). Yes, there are people who are mobile thanks to cars when they could not walk.

    Driving is fine, and motor vehicles are amazing tools. But when we build our cities and places for cars before walking (or wheelchairing or whatever else) we end up with a land use that excludes a portion of society which literally cannot drive on their own. Cars are freedom in some contexts, and chains of bondage in other contexts. And that’s not even counting all the people who can’t, or don’t want to, afford the expense of a car and everything that comes with it.

  4. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 07/24/2015 - 09:59 am.

    My recent sidewalk pet peeve

    I’m sick of seeing construction signs placed on narrow sidewalks rather than placed in oversized or extraneous vehicular traffic lanes. You know, those big orange diamond-shaped signs directed at motorists approaching and inside of a construction area. It’s ridiculous how these signs will be placed on a narrow sidewalk, consuming the majority of it and preventing wheelchair access, instead of placing them in a 16+ foot travel lane or parking lane below the curb. I’ve been taking photos of these conditions all summer across Minneapolis.

    A non-ADA corrolary to this is closing a bike lane while maintaining multiple vehicle travel lanes in one direction. Downtown is notorious for this right now, with all the construction going on. Yesterday, I was bicycling north on Park Ave past the new Commons and associated development. The bicycle lane ended, forcing me into a traffic lane. But there were three continuous motor vehicle lanes northbound. No. Where motor vehicle lanes > 1, close one and maintain continuity of the bicycle lane. It’s ridiculous, especially on streets like Park where traffic volumes don’t even justify three lanes in the first place.

    There must be an outdated metric for how construction projects are charged for their impact on the public right of way that devalues sidewalks and bicycle lanes and overly values extraneous motor vehicle lanes.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 07/24/2015 - 01:44 pm.

      This is also a pet peeve of mine. Have you considered guerrilla urbanism by just moving it into the street yourself? I’m getting far more tempted every time I see this, which is *way* too often.

      I recall stumbling across some rules about requesting sidewalk or road closures for construction at one point while trying to find laws about how wide a sidewalk should be (related to other sorts of obstructions blocking part of it –it was only 4 feet!) and I don’t remember exactly but I’m not sure there is much of a charge for closing off a sidewalk temporarily (if any?). The rules seemed way more concerned with closing off traffic lanes.

    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 07/24/2015 - 02:11 pm.


      During construction they should maintain the configuration that results in the maximum throughput. Cyclists have legal right to standard lanes so can merge and share the frustration that happens during construction and repairs.

  5. Submitted by Susan Richter on 07/24/2015 - 12:51 pm.

    Disabled or Different Abilities NOT Handicapped

    I know people use the word handicapped all the time. It’s even in the ADA. But, handicapped is out dated term, negative, and derogatory word. It indicates a person is less than, not as good as, and can’t. They want access to what we have access to (often what we take for granted). People with different abilities want to be identified as a person first. The disability should not be the what defines them. It’s time to change our perceptions. It’s time to work harder to give them access to all things that can enrich their lives; just as we can. They are people first.

    • Submitted by Michael Hess on 07/27/2015 - 07:05 am.

      Different Abilities is misleading

      When some one suffers a disability, humans don’t sprout a new ability to compensate. While people may get better at abilities they already have (the euphemistic “other senses compensate”) that doesn’t mean it’s a different ability.

  6. Submitted by Julie Barton on 07/24/2015 - 01:39 pm.

    We’ve got a long way to go…

    I remember riding w/ my granddad in the late 70s – he had a conversion van modified to accept his electric wheelchair (which were SO much bigger/wider/heavier than the ones today) and all the controls on the steering column so he could drive it. I also remember him sending me into the stores to pick up what he wanted, since there was no place for him to park the van that allowed the ramp to go down. He could get out and have some freedom, but he was still confined and left powerless when he got where he was going. It seemed fun to me at the time (I was 7 and getting to spend time with grandpa, what could be better?) but as I got older, I can see the issues.

    It isn’t any better today. I watched a modified for mobility van the other day try to figure out how to get the ramp down in the “Van Accessible” handicap spot: the ramp could come down, but then you couldn’t roll off with the close parked cars. I was so frustrated just watching: I cannot image how the woman in the wheelchair felt.

    Then I think of the “wheelchair ramp” I saw when visiting Moscow: two rails attached over the stairs, just put your wheels in the grove and rush down, or find someone to push you up. We have come a long way, but have so much farther go to.

  7. Submitted by Adam Miller on 07/24/2015 - 02:30 pm.

    Another recent issue

    Is tearing up the sidewalk on both sides of a street at the same time, often with a “sidewalk closed, use other side” sign suggesting an entirely futile street crossing.

    It’s bad enough if you can see that you’re going to have to climb over an active construction sight because apparently no one thought about maintaining pedestrian access, but even worse I watched a vision-impaired man try to feel his way among the conflicting signs and blockages. I don’t think he would have been able to figure it out without help. That’s not okay.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/25/2015 - 08:23 am.

    Several good points

    …made in the commentary.

    Hudson Leighton makes an important point. While my knees deteriorate with age, I can still walk a couple miles a day, and as a professional grandfather, have spent quite a few moments since arriving in Minneapolis trying to negotiate curbs, building entrances and street crossings with a stroller carrying a grandchild or two. As Bill’s own comment suggests, if we make sidewalks work for those with physical challenges, they’ll work for everyone.

    Ms. Kahler has correctly, I think, pointed out that many people (too many of them traffic engineers and transportation officials), while following the rules and adhering to the policies, don’t really have much empathy for, or insight into, the predicaments that people with mobility challenges typically find themselves. The “luxury” pedestrian crossing in the middle of nowhere while heavily used locations are neglected seems the stereotypical example, and they’re unfortunately not hard to find. The house I lived in while in Loveland, CO was the only place even minimally accessible if I’d been in a wheelchair. My current abode in NW Minneapolis has multiple steps into each entry/exit, with little room for a ramp as an alternative, and of course, since it was built in the 1950s, the interior has no handicap-accessible features at all, including the steep staircase to the 2nd floor so typical of houses built decades before the ADA became law and policy.

    Matt Steele and Adam Miller also make good points about thoughtless construction procedures. I’ve encountered the “Sidewalk Closed” situation myself, with sidewalks on *both* sides of the street unavailable, leaving pedestrians, handicapped or not, with no choice but to walk in the traffic lane. Someone who should know better isn’t thinking very much in allowing those kinds of situations to develop.

    I have to part ways with Susan Richter, however. While I understand the issue in broader, more overall terms in the society, I don’t personally automatically view someone with a physical handicap as somehow inherently “inferior” to the rest of the population, and frankly, use of the term “handicapped,” while not politically-correct in the current environment, seems to me quite accurate in the real-world sense. If it weren’t, there’d be no need for Bill’s article or this discussion. It may be an outdated term, but my own bias is that “disabled” is not always a satisfactory substitute, and while I understand why Ms. Richter and many others view it as derogatory and negative, and don’t happen to agree with that interpretation. I’d use “disabled” only in specific situations, and find “handicapped” to be more generally useful and accurate. That said, however, I’m entirely in agreement with her regarding the treatment of those people who *do* have to deal with handicaps of varying kinds and degrees. People first, handicap somewhere farther down on the list.

  9. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 07/26/2015 - 11:41 am.

    Put designers in wheelchairs

    Years ago my company had an employee bar crawl. One of the workers had just broken her leg and I rented a wheelchair for her. Accompanying a wheelchair through multiple establishments was enlightening. Since I had rented it for a day I used it myself for the rest of the rental. The actual user experience should be part of traffic engineer training.

  10. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 07/26/2015 - 08:28 pm.


    If you let a word like handicapped, or disabled bug you, you have bigger problems than your condition. They’re simply words that communicate effectively their meaning. The alternatives are vague. One could insist that Christians call themselves non-Jews, because that’s what they are, in historical perspective. You define yourself for yourself. Not what other people say. I’m not trying to trivialize your feelings. My mother was handicapped, and she never let it stop her from leading a productive life. What you do is more important than a label.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/27/2015 - 04:56 pm.


      I completely agree, with Mr. Topor. Like it or not, many disabilities result in physical challenges. It is appropriate to use the term “handicapped” because it provides others with the understanding that those challenges impair what most of us would consider “normal” living. It isn’t meant to denigrate the person who is affected by a handicap. And, if anything, the term “disability” suggests a much broader inability to function “normally” while “handicap” suggests increased challenge, not inability, to function “normally”. For instance, if you handicap a horse in a race, you simply provide them an extra challenge (additional weight) to their ability to compete. If the horse is disabled, it doesn’t compete at all. While the term “handicapped” might be old, and some people might like terms like “differently abled”, it is much more meaningful and accurate than the alternatives.

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