Kansas City is spending millions as it carefully faces huge ADA challenge

Kansas City officials redesigned the new streetcar maintenance facility at Third and Holmes streets to include a main entrance ramp that’s easy for all to use.
Kansas City officials redesigned the new streetcar maintenance facility at Third and Holmes streets to include a main entrance ramp that’s easy for all to use. abouhalkah@kcstar.com

Brian McMillan has been paralyzed from the waist down since a motorcycle accident in 2002. That helps explain why he wants Kansas City officials to fully comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act for all public facilities.

But McMillan justifiably thinks a far larger number of Kansas Citians should care about how accountable City Hall will be in fixing the tens of thousands of ADA violations that exist around town.

“Not everyone’s going to be 30 and nimble forever,” said McMillan.

As they get older, many local residents will benefit from curb cuts in sidewalks, better access to dozens of city buildings and parks, listening devices at public meetings, modern pedestrian signals and more convenient restrooms and elevators.

Here’s a recent example of how this change in philosophy can happen. Early designs for the Kansas City streetcar vehicle maintenance facility at Third and Holmes streets included two paths to the same entrance: one with stairs and one with a ramp.

But Meg Conger, the city’s ADA compliance manager, city architect Eric Bosch plus others knowledgeable about the ADA worked out a better plan. It called for a single ramp entrance into the building.

Goodbye to stairs that are difficult to navigate and costly to maintain. Hello to a useful ramp that doesn’t discriminate against people with disabilities.

As city officials acknowledge, lots of work remains to be done to catalog violations of the federal civil rights law throughout the city. That’s a mammoth task linked to an even more challenging one: In tight city budgets, find the tens of millions of dollars that will be needed to make these improvements.

The work is extensive. Over the last five years, for instance, the city has completed more than 1,400 ADA-compliant curb ramps, at a cost of $4,500 each. The work is often linked to road resurfacing projects. An estimated 2,400 corners are still unramped around the city, according to city engineer Jeff Martin.

Champions of the ADA cause applaud the city for doing some things correctly.

David Westbrook, chair of the Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities, told The Star, “I would have been far more critical five years ago.” But he said the city has hired people who care about the issue, established priorities for getting more important projects done and put together a logical plan to discover the violations and fix them.

There’s been a “very civil dialogue,” said Westbrook, who is blind. The ADA community “respects that the city can’t do it all at once,” he added.

Candice Minear, a disability rights advocate, said she appreciates the city’s quicker pace on installing curb cuts in her Westport-area neighborhood.

“I have seen a lot more work done over the last year than the previous three to four years,” said Minear, who has a spinal cord injury.

However, Minear added that she also still sees telephone or utility poles in the middle of sidewalks, hampering people in wheelchairs. The amount of handicapped parking at some public buildings, such as community centers, is not always adequate. And city dog parks often are tougher to get around than they should be, she said.

In recent interviews, Conger and Bosch acknowledged that the city had made numerous mistakes, which led to a settlement agreement in 2012 with the Department of Justice.

The city now is using software that allows it to catalog problems by department, building and even room by room, often accompanied by photos. Almost everything is measured, from door closing speeds to entrance widths to the heights of sinks and paper towel dispensers.

Think those issues don’t matter? Try using a restroom while in a wheelchair and bumping into things that easily could be moved a few inches out of the way.

Echoing McMillan, Conger said able-bodied people who suddenly find themselves on crutches benefit from the ADA-related repairs. “Once you need them, you really start to appreciate them,” she said.

Conger and Bosch also are sensitive to the viewpoint that tax dollars have to be responsibly spent on ADA compliance, when compared to the need for funding public safety and other vital city programs. “We don’t go in and fix things unnecessarily,” Conger said.

The city has hit the “pause button” on making major ADA-related improvements at Kansas City International Airport, for example, given the unsettled state of KCI’s future.

Bosch said the city has required many contractors to have ADA specialists on staff to make sure new public facilities comply with the federal law. Still, problems can occur.

As Conger conceded, the city’s ADA projects sometimes appear to be moving too slowly. “But,” she said, “we’re fixing a quarter-century worth of stuff.”

Given the number of people affected by the city’s years of neglect, Kansas City officials must be extra vigilant in finding the problems as well as the money required to eliminate them.