Heidi Johnson-Wright is an American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator who lives in Miami. I got in touch with her to hear her perspective on how our cities can better be designed to accommodate people with disabilities. It's not about high-tech wheelchairs or a sidewalk that is exactly 36 inches wide. It's about listening to the needs of your residents and making your city work for everyone.
Rachel: Tell me about your background and what led you to be an ADA coordinator.
Heidi: First of all, I am a person with a disability. I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when I was 9 years old. I had it very severely as a kid resulting in major permanent joint damage all over my body. For a number of years, I would use a chair periodically if I was recovering from surgery or having more pain on a particular day, but then over time, mobility just becomes increasingly more difficult with age — as is typical for most of us. So I am pretty much a full-time wheelchair user and have been for 25 years. That’s part of who I am and my knowledge base.
I was previously a practicing attorney for a little over 10 years with the state of Ohio doing regulatory compliance work. I’m from Cleveland and my husband is from Akron, but we lived in Columbus for many years. We had the house in the ‘burbs with the lawn and the whole thing, but we decided there was something more to life than that. And I don’t mean any disrespect to people that like that; that’s how I was raised as a kid. But we just decided it wasn’t for us. We wanted something that was more diverse in many aspects and so we came to Miami to go on a cruise, spent a couple days there before and after the cruise, and immediately fell in love.
We spent the next three years figuring out what we needed to do in order to make the move to Miami. Florida has no reciprocity in terms of law licenses with Ohio and I was twentysome years out of law school. I would’ve had to take the bar again and all that. I thought, I’ve got great regulatory law compliance experience, so I’ll see what I can find in terms of ADA compliance positions.
We’re Midwesterners. We’re very risk-averse people, my husband and I, but we made this huge leap. It’s the most risk-taking we’ve ever done. We sold our home in Ohio. We didn’t have jobs lined up in Miami but we worked and worked to make connections. About six months after we made the move, the City of Miami Beach — which is one of my favorite places in the world — was advertising for its very first full-time ADA Coordinator.
They had had people doing ADA compliance, but it has been people who had other jobs already. That’s very typical in a lot of municipalities, even now that we’re 28 years after the passage of the ADA. It’s very common that whoever left the room during the meeting to go to the bathroom, they come back and find out that they’ve been made the ADA coordinator. Thank goodness the City of Miami Beach wanted a full-time ADA Coordinator. So I got the job.
I was there for six years and absolutely adored it. One of the greatest things was that they put the position with the Department of Public Works. I had not worked a lot in that realm before, so a lot of what I did was street-oriented things. The amount of condos going up in the city at that time was just incredible. They were doing a lot of streetscape projects and renovations to pools and community centers and things like that. I was there to keep track of what we were doing and where we were going. Since then, I’ve taken a different ADA compliance job that offered new ways to grow.
Rachel: How does your background impact the way you view cities?
Heidi: My husband, Steve, does business development and urban planning, so we talk all the time about these issues. He’s not disabled, but we’ve been together over thirty years so he’s very aware of what a wheelchair user encounters. We observe this stuff all the time. We love to travel. We’ve been to Spain, England, Colombia, Costa Rica and many more places. I cannot go anywhere without looking at curb ramps and looking at sidewalks.
When I worked for the City of Miami Beach, our offices were in the South Beach neighborhood and when I first started, I saw the area in terms of nightclubs and hotels and rappers and celebrities. And when I left the City after six years, I saw South Beach in terms of curb and gutter and storm drains and that sort of thing, because that’s how I’ve learned to look at the world.
Rachel: Let's talk about a couple specific issues related to city planning. One issue you've discussed before is that sometimes sidewalk enhancements like benches or planters can hinder access for people who use wheelchairs. How can planners and anyone involved in streetscape work keep sidewalks accessible and welcoming to everyone?
Heidi: That’s a great question. One of the things that was really challenging when I worked for the City of Miami Beach was that, in some of the areas, the sidewalks are just really not very wide. And then you’ve got our Florida Power & Light poles, you’ve got developers putting up stuff, you’ve got the city and maybe the county... You’re dealing with all those entities. We would get calls to the City from people who couldn’t get through because there were too many barriers to people on the sidewalk. I would do everything I could to help, but I think people don’t realize how many entities are involved. It’s not like the city can just go out there and fix it.
When you’re planning, I think that you always have to be thinking — even if there aren’t extra barriers in there right now — we’ve got to be figuring that down the road, that’s going to happen. Don’t think, “Hey, we’ve got 36 inches of passage here, so we’re cool.”
The US Access Board is a federal agency that develops standards for the built environment to be adopted into ADA requirements. They have these standards that are in existence but haven’t been made into law yet, and their guidelines require significantly more space than what’s required now. I think the minimum unblocked passage is 48 inches.
We should be aspiring to more. I always tell people — whether they’re capital projects managers or public works people or whoever — don’t look at just doing the minimum [required by ADA]. Look at doing better than that.
It shouldn’t be that we design for the 175 lb, 5’10” non-disabled male and then throw in a little bit of stuff for those disabled people on the side. Ideally we should be designing for everybody, whether it’s the young parent pushing the stroller or whoever it might be.
AARP has done surveys that show the vast, vast majority of people that are retirement age or getting to retirement age say they want to age in place. You bought the house in your 30s, maybe you paid it off in your 50s and why should you have to leave it just because you get to be 65 or 70 and you’ve got bad knees? Not only the home that you live in, but also the neighborhood that you live in with your support network, your church, your friends, the supermarket you’ve gone to for the last 30 years that you love — why should you have to go elsewhere simply because now you’ve developed a mobility issue? I just think that we need to be designing for everybody.
Rachel: Something else I wanted to ask about is snow removal issues, which can impact anybody using a sidewalk. Is that something that you’ve talked with other wheelchair users about or other people in colder climates?
Heidi: I have, and I lived through 36 Ohio winters! There’s no question that you’ve got parking lots, say, at a strip mall where the plows come along, they push snow to the end and that, a lot of times, blocks handicapped spaces. Or the plow comes along and pushes snow to the bottom of a curb ramp...
If I could say how things should be, I really believe that every municipality should have a minimum 40 hour a week role for one person solely dedicated to ADA, and for larger municipalities, more. If cities had more dedication in terms of really integrating ADA coordinators into how things get done in a city or county, things would be better.
I don’t think that cities do poorly because they have any kind of ill will. I think it’s just that you don’t know what you don’t know. Even the smallest of municipalities should have a disability advisory group and appoint people from the community with different disabilities. You want to get input. If a city staffer doesn’t have a disability or a family member or close friend that has one, or they’re not really getting input, there are things they’re just not going to think of. That’s just how it is.
I think a lot of cities care about inclusivity and they’re bringing a lot of different people into the fold, but often disability gets ignored and not addressed. And that’s really, really important.
Rachel: How does transit play into these mobility issues for people with disabilities and how can cities respond?
Heidi: If you’re a public sector transit entity and you want to look at just dollars and cents, the more fixed route bus or train stops in your city that are easy to get to, the more it takes the load off of the paratransit portion of what you do. Paratransit is expensive.
We need it; there’s no dispute about that because some folks just don’t have the capacity at all to use any fixed route transit. But some people can do fixed route sometimes, or maybe there’s part of the route where they’re comfortable using the bus but they’d rather do paratransit for another destination… So the more fixed route you provide and the more sidewalks and curb ramps and streetscapes you incorporate along those really busy corridors of public transit, you’re going to take the load off of your paratransit and it’ll be less costly.
Unfortunately, when you have a disability, a lot of times you only have one or two ways you can do a given thing. The more we limit those things, the less choices people with disabilities have. That really makes me angry.
Younger people now are looking at not owning cars because there’s Uber and Lyft. And that’s wonderful. My friends that are blind love Uber and Lyft. But those are completely un-useable if you have a wheelchair. It makes me angry that we can just look at that and say, “That whole group is disenfranchised by this particular industry, but, oh well.”
So if you’re a city or county, don’t just think that you don’t need to make safer, better streets and access to public transit because there’s Uber and Lyft. If Uber and Lyft today said, “We’re not going to pick up women,” I think they’d be shut down in a week. But when it comes to, “We’re not going to pick up people with disabilities,” everybody says, “Okay, whatever.”
I’m seeing sort of a disturbing trend online of people that do urban planning who are basically saying that, because there are these $150,000 wheelchairs that can go up a few steps, then that absolves them of having to make the built environment accessible. I just think that’s outrageous.
Number one, people with disabilities are three times more likely to live in poverty than people without. Those are people that are going to be on Medicare and Medicaid. Insurance is never going to pay for that kind of wheelchair. It also doesn’t work for all people, because many people with different types of disabilities aren’t comfortable in that type of chair, so it’s not the magic chair by any means.
It goes back to this archaic view of people with disabilities where we say, “Go in your corner and get fixed up. Have a surgery. Take a drug. Get the magic chair... When you can do everything that we can do, then come join us over here. And until you can, go sit in your corner.” We shouldn’t have to go fix ourselves so that we can join the rest of the group.
Less than 1% of all housing units in the United States are move-in ready for a wheelchair user. In other words, in less than one percent of homes could you just go in and get the key from the landlord and move in. Imagine if you went out apartment hunting and as you step out the door, you know that less than 1% of everything that’s out there is going be even something you could look at as possible.
That’s what limits us. That’s what keeps us in poverty. That’s what keeps us unemployed.
Thanks to Heidi for sharing this important and necessary perspective. If you want to hear more from Heidi, check out our podcast interview with her in 2015.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. (Top photo by Carl Kerridge)