When President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law 29 years ago, he proclaimed that the “shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
Jason Beloungy, the executive director of Access to Independence, said these walls exist today despite the passage of the federal law. At a press conference Friday announcing the city’s Disability Rights Commission’s Access Madison campaign and Downtown Madison Inc.’s accessibility report, Beloungy said he hopes for a more accessible future in Madison.
“Twenty-nine years later, we still have too many shameful walls of exclusion even right here in our wonderful city,” Beloungy said. “Today’s effort is really a first step to help get those walls to start tumbling down.”
Two years ago, DMI and Old National Bank approached the Disability Rights Commission about changing the international symbol of accessibility as part of a national movement. At the time, the commission felt more work needed to be done to improve accessibility in Madison.
DMI began studying accessibility issues through its Beyond Compliance Taskforce, comprised of representatives from the Department of Civil Rights, DMI and Access to Independence, to address disability-related inclusion and accessibility barriers in downtown Madison.
The subsequent survey, developed by Urban Assets, polled 90 community members about barriers to accessibility in areas of mobility, public transportation, private businesses, community events, parks and open spaces, and semi-public spaces like the Capitol Lawn.
“Reading that report was quite a wake-up call,” Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said. “We have to redouble our efforts to do so much more than what is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Jason Glozier, the disability rights and services program specialist in the city’s Department of Civil Rights, said the most “glaring” issue was the lack of accessibility at downtown community events, like the Farmers Market, parades and festivals. According to the survey, 48% of respondents said they experienced barriers in accessing downtown community events.
“These are areas where the city has the ability to improve accessibility,” Glozier said. “We realize we need to take steps to hold individuals who hold festivals in our city accountable for accessibility.”
Survey respondents listed audio issues and a lack of accessible parking, seating, benches, accessible restrooms and entrances as top barriers.
Verveer said the city’s Street Use Staff Commission, which oversees permitting for events, is already starting to look at how it can address accessibility issues through the permitting process.
The report also found that 63% of respondents have experienced mobility barriers in the downtown, 59% do not use public transportation to access downtown and that a top barrier is inadequate shelter infrastructure, and 45% have experienced barriers accessing a private business downtown.
Additionally, 33% have experienced barriers to parks and open spaces and 38% reported accessibility barriers in semi-public spaces.
The official launch of DMI’s report and the Access Madison campaign is meant to highlight the partnership between government, the business community and the disability community.
"It is the mission of DMI to work to identify, confront the structural barriers that are impediments to everyone enjoying downtown," DMI president Jason Ilstrup said.
The goal of the campaign is meant to ensure the city and businesses are taking proactive steps in ensuring accessibility from the beginning of a project. Disability Rights Commission chair Bella Sobah said the campaign will bring awareness to barriers and education to businesses that might not know how to achieve greater accessibility.
“Our ultimate goal when businesses start popping up, is that (accessibility) won't be an afterthought,” Sobah said.
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