KC, Justice Department reach agreement on disabilities projects

Kansas City has reached a settlement that requires millions of dollars in city improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

The settlement, which the City Council authorized earlier this year, makes Kansas City the 200th city nationally to agree to improve access to public facilities for people with disabilities, as required by the law.

“We are committed to helping every resident fully participate in all Kansas City has to offer,” Mayor Sly James said in a statement. “Our city has historically been a leader on issues of inclusion and equal access, and I am proud we are once again demonstrating that commitment.”

But it won’t come cheap. When the City Council voted Feb. 9 to authorize the settlement, some council members warned that it will cost millions of dollars to bring city buildings and other infrastructure like streets into compliance. They said it was another unfunded federal mandate, and they weren’t sure where the money would come from.

Complaints about the city’s failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) reached a fever pitch in spring 2010, when a group of disabled citizens met with then-Mayor Mark Funkhouser. They said that, 20 years after passage of the law, the city had a cavalier attitude toward the civil rights of those with disabilities. It had failed to provide such things as audible traffic signals for blind citizens and curb cuts for people in wheelchairs.

The Justice Department then did an inventory of city facilities and programs. It came up with a list of required improvements and proposed schedules for when each should be completed.

Since then, the city has hired a full-time ADA compliance officer and has begun addressing the list. It has started budgeting for upgrades to signage, restrooms, doorways and other features of City Hall and other buildings, and has implemented ADA construction standards for municipal projects such as buildings and roadways.

Sheila Styron, public policy coordinator with the Whole Person, a disability-rights organization, applauded the settlement Wednesday. She said city government has made some progress already, and advocates for the disabled will continue to hold its feet to the fire.

“It’s a good thing,” she said of the agreement. “There will now be a timetable and a definite commitment for the city to move forward on making all of the elements of the city accessible.”