Access for all

A quarter century after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Anchorage still has a long way to go when it comes to accessibility.

There are issues with housing, transportation and public facilities. Perhaps the biggest problem is one of communication: Try contacting the Municipality of Anchorage with an access-related question, and you’ll “usually get sent in a Groundhog Day circle from hell.”

At least that’s how Darrel Hess describes it.

“We could do a much better job when it comes to the ADA,” said Hess, who occasionally encounters access-related concerns in his role as municipal ombudsman.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the ADA “guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications.”

But for Anchorage residents struggling with accessibility, solutions can still be difficult to find.

Barriers to accessibility come in many forms. Try navigating with a mobility issue in a community where sidewalks are sometimes nonexistent, or even in a neighborhood like Mountain View, where sidewalks are plentiful but often punctuated by metal bollards that make it impossible to pass for some kinds of wheelchairs. Or try catching a ride at a bus stop clogged with snow and ice when you depend on a cane or have other mobility troubles.

Jim Beck, executive director at the private nonprofit Access Alaska, says pedestrian access is one of his top priorities this coming year.

“Snow removal is a huge issue in a city like Anchorage,” Beck said. “If we can’t have decent pedestrian access then people can’t use public transportation.”

Citywide, there’s also a stark need for more abundant accessible housing.

That was the message Larry Yingling Jr. hoped to share with the Anchorage Assembly when he first came forward to testify at a meeting in January 2014.

“The handicapped and disabled people of Anchorage have no access for the use of their wheelchairs, which include ramps and elevators. The handicapped and disabled people of Anchorage do not have enough handicap parking to access apartment buildings,” Yingling told Assembly members, reading from a letter he wrote for the occasion. “What is the Anchorage Assembly going to do about this issue of discrimination?”

Yingling, a U.S. Army veteran and former combat engineer, fractured his spine during a training exercise in 2008. It took four surgeries to get back on his feet: Doctors put wires in his shoulders and a titanium disc in his neck and cut out a part of his lower back. When his enlistment ended in 2010, his injury made it difficult to move, let alone find steady work. For a while, he lived in a downtown apartment building, he says, but there was no easily accessible handicap parking–an issue he brought up to his landlord. Then suddenly, he says, he was evicted without cause or explanation.

Yingling felt driven to take his concerns to the Assembly; he says he saw nowhere else to turn. But the meeting was less than satisfying.

“It was basically just a waste of time, really,” he recalled.

After that January Assembly meeting, there were two more meetings and a few email exchanges with local lawmakers, Yingling said, but he never saw the changes he hoped would materialize. The whole process left him feeling confused and stuck with nowhere to turn for assistance.

More than a year later, the injured veteran is just as frustrated as ever with the state of accessible housing in Anchorage. Too many apartments and houses and duplexes and condominiums are built solely for those who can walk, and too many landlords don’t seem to care, he said.

“Even if a guy served his country, Special Forces guy, did it all and had his legs blown off, he wouldn’t be able to live there,” Yingling said. “I was hoping to get a change in law, honestly; for my battle buddies and for every single person around here that’s disabled.”

In general, the ADA doesn’t apply to housing, an area usually covered by the Fair Housing Act.

To Yingling, though, it’s all “just a show,” and there are massive gaps in accessibility around the country. Housing is a primary need.

Beck brought the same issue before the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education during a meeting in Mountain View last fall.He asked the council to prioritize accessible housing at the state level, and told members that he had stopped writing letters of support for various public housing projects because they weren’t suitably accessible for the elderly or disabled. When it comes to accessible housing, he said at the time, “We really need to do better.”

Not a lot has changed since then.

So where can an Alaskan with an access issue turn?

That’s where things can get sticky.

People have several options, says Hess, the municipal ombudsman. They can file an ADA complaint with the Department of Justice, or contact Access Alaska, which can handle the majority of issues that come its way. There’s also the Disability Law Center, a statewide protection and advocacy agency for Alaskans with disabilities. For public accommodation complaints, people can turn to the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, the ombudsman says. Anchorage also has an ADA Advisory Commission; a group of seven men and women who meet, take public comments and provide policy recommendations to the mayor on issues affecting Alaskans with disabilities.

Some access issues – like curb height or handicap parking – can fall under municipal code; others fall under federal legislation. If you log on to muni.org in hopes of finding answers, though, prepare to be disappointed.

“There’s no dropdown that says ‘ADA complaint,’” Hess said. “A lot of what we get is people who call different offices and get different answers.”

Meanwhile, senior Alaskans are a fast-growing segment of the population, according to U.S. Census data, and Hess said the need for an accessible community–and accessible information–is growing, too.

With a new administration in City Hall, the ombudsman said he believes things may take a turn for the better. For now, though, when it comes to the ADA and general accessibility in Anchorage, there’s still work to be done.

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