The 20-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act requires transportation officials to make conditions safer at crosswalks, but in Minnesota, though officials say they are making progress, advocates say compliance has been slow.
The expression, "mean streets," takes on a whole new connotation if you have a disability. People who are blind or in wheelchairs routinely face risks as they cross Minnesota's thousands of intersections.
Minneapolis resident Richard Virchow, 36, blames potholes for his brush with death.
Virchow has been in a wheelchair most of his life. One evening last summer, he veered away from a crosswalk near his home that was pockmarked with potholes. Worried about tipping his chair in them Virchow took to the street.
A car crashed into him.
"Fortunately I gave it to the back end of my wheelchair, which was the reinforced part of my chair, otherwise I would have been dead," Virchow said.
Virchow said he spent a couple weeks in a hospital and several months in a nursing home recovering from injuries, including a broken pelvis.
"The city police and everyone said it was my fault because I was the obstruction of traffic, because I was in the middle of the lanes and not in the crosswalk," he said.
Virchow and disability advocates say he has the law on his side.
In fact, the law says people in wheelchairs can use the streets in certain cases, but where sidewalks are provided and are accessible they can't. The key word is accessible.
Virchow can cite plenty of instances where potholes, snow, ice or other hazards make sidewalks at intersections unsafe or impassable causing him to venture into the street.
The bigger picture, advocates for people with disabilities say, is cities, counties and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are years behind in complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
MnDOT officials say they are following the law and in the past three years stepped up efforts and spending to bring them closer to compliance. Compliance hasn't always worked.
Consider the early designs for curb ramps. Curb ramps are at intersections all over Minnesota. They are the depressions at corners that angle down from the sidewalk to the street.
Roseville resident Christopher Bell, who has been blind since birth, illustrated the danger with the old design.
At a Central Avenue intersection in northeast Minneapolis, an older curb ramp angles down but it isn't aligned with the crosswalk, and instead points Bell into vehicles.
"[I'm] shunted out into the middle of oncoming traffic by going diagonal down curb ramps, which is the most predominant form of curb ramp we have in the Twin Cities area," Bell said. Newer curb ramps are at more of a right angle to guide people into crosswalks.
Minnesota Department of Transportation project manager Nick Thompson pointed out the better design at an intersection near his MnDOT headquarters office in St. Paul.
"You have the curb ramps installed that have a different texture on them as you approach the curb and then the slope of the ramp leads you directly into the pedestrian crossing," Thompson said.
Twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, MnDOT is completing a survey of what needs to be done at intersections, rest stops, along roadways and in buildings owned by the agency to put them in compliance with the federal law.
One of the most frequent requests by people with disabilities is to equip intersections with Accessible Pedestrian Signals, or APS. The boxes sound the words "wait" and "walk," and also vibrate as indicators for people with disabilities.
However, the scale of the job ahead is substantial.
MnDOT is responsible for more than 1,000 signalized intersections in the state. Just over 10 percent have APS with more installations planned this year.
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