32 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, fight for access goes on


Staff Writer

Published: 04-19-2022 5:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Advocates for the rights of people with disabilities plan to rally this weekend for improved access to public spaces, calling attention to businesses where wheelchair users cannot shop and the crumbling downtown sidewalks that pose physical dangers for those with mobility challenges.

At noon on Saturday, April 23, the march will begin at the train station at 170 Pleasant St. and end at Pulaski Park, at 240 Main St., where attendees can hear speeches from accessibility advocates and enjoy a live performance of the Coldplay song “The Scientist” by Philip Price, Flora Reed and Melissa Nelson. Those unable to march are encouraged to gather at Pulaski Park at noon.

Jeremy Macomber-Dubs, chairman of the city’s Disability Commission and a rally organizer with the grassroots Disableist Movement, said speakers will offer solutions to accessibility problems in the city and share their own experiences of living with disabilities.

Macomber-Dubs toured the downtown area with a reporter last week, showing the challenges of navigating an electric wheelchair around some of his favorite spots. Many downtown businesses have at least one step at their entrance and no wheelchair access.

“If people put their heads together, they can come up with solutions to these things,” he said. “You can’t just build a ramp in front of every building. … I understand why they don’t, but one of my goals for this rally is to start a conversation where they start making changes or at least start trying to make these changes.”

The city’s ongoing redesign of Main Street represents “a really good step toward progress,” Macomber-Dubs said, and city planning officials have been open to listening to the concerns of people with disabilities, but not every accessibility problem is the city’s responsibility.

The restaurant and cafe Familiars on Strong Avenue is an example of accessibility done right, he said. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, customers pick up their orders and eat outside; Macomber-Dubs, a frequent customer, said staff were putting his orders at the top of a small staircase that leads into the front door, but when he asked management to move the pickup spot to the top of the nearby wheelchair ramp, they quickly added that location as an option for all customers.

“They could have told me they felt bad” and done nothing about it, “but they fixed it that day,” Macomber-Dubs said.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Danny McColgan, one of the owners of Familiars, said the building dates to 1932. The building’s owner installed a wheelchair ramp when Familiars took over the space in 2019.

“Accessibility was always a goal of ours, to create an accessible space for everyone,” McColgan said. Offering a second pickup spot was “truly such a simple fix, and it was so nice of Jeremy to point that out to us” because the solution benefits many other people, too.

Another success story is the wheelchair ramp that the Main Street restaurant Spoleto added near the side entrance.

One day last year, Macomber-Dubs said he became irate with Spoleto’s management because he ordered dinner by phone and paid ahead, but he needed it brought to him outside the restaurant and it took him several minutes to flag down a staff member to help. The front entrance has a single step and there was no way for his wheelchair to cross the loose rocks and gravel that lead to the side door.

Macomber-Dubs said he stopped going to Spoleto after that, so he did not realize that management had immediately installed a wooden ramp that crosses over the rocks. When he saw it for the first time last week, he said it suited his needs and offered praise for the restaurant’s manager.

“We want to make everyone in the community feel welcome, everybody that comes into our business,” Spoleto manager Sophia Robohn said on Monday. “It’s something that a lot of businesses in our community are not adhering to.”

Modifications not easy

While Macomber-Dubs credited Spoleto for its swift action, he worries about being seen as “the angry guy in the wheelchair.”

Ableism, or discrimination that favors able-bodied people, is often unintentional, he said. Able-bodied people typically would not have a reason to think about accessibility and well-intentioned business owners might be handcuffed by regulations about modifying their spaces.

“I’ve only been to one record store in Northampton, which is Newbury Comics,” Macomber-Dubs said, despite living in the city for more than a decade and playing frequent shows as the lead singer for the band Bunnies. “I’ve never been able to go to Turn It Up. That’s not their fault. That’s not on them.”

A 13-year employee of Turn It Up, Mike Warawka, said staff is happy to bring pre-orders outside for customers with disabilities or to assist them with getting inside, but there isn’t much more that can be done without significant alterations to the building; the basement-level business on Pleasant Street is located at the bottom of a concrete staircase, and it’s in a historic commercial block, so making modifications requires even more bureaucratic approval than most businesses.

Warawka said customers can call ahead and let staff know they need assistance. Macomber-Dubs said all businesses should be willing to do the same, and they should post their phone number outside.

Fellow rally organizer Olivia Marshall uses a wheelchair, as well, and said she needs to be carried into one of the local music venues because the performance space is accessed by stairs. Too many city sidewalks are narrow and crumbling and buildings with a step at the entrance are no-go zones for her, a 27-year-old lifelong city resident, and others with disabilities.

“Not being able to get into a business, and knowing there’s nothing I can do about it, feels pretty terrible,” Marshall said. “At this point in my life, I’ve kind of admitted defeat and I don’t go into those businesses.”

She added that a business posting its phone number outside still requires a person with disabilities to call and ask an able-bodied person for help, so “that solution is imperfect.”

Doors at public places in the city are often “so, so heavy,” and Marshall said more businesses should have buttons to open the door automatically.

There is no such button outside the U.S. Post Office on Bridge Street, and although Macomber-Dubs can open the door on his own, he credits his upper body strength. Marshall said she didn’t realize there was no button because she always goes to the post office with another person, who opens the door for her, but she said it doesn’t look too heavy and she could handle it on her own.

‘ADA is not enough’

A central problem is that so many public buildings, if not all, are compliant with federal regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning there is no way to compel them to improve access. The ADA only set requirements for construction that took place after it was signed into law in 1990.

“Ultimately, the goal is to change what the ADA says is accessible,” Marshall said. “I just hope I can open people’s eyes. … They don’t realize it’s as bad as it is. It doesn’t affect them, so they don’t really think about it.”

Ironically, Macomber-Dubs said, many businesses have accessible bathrooms that he cannot use because he can’t get in the building.

“One of the chants at our rally is going to be, ‘ADA is not enough. Reasonable access now,’” he said.

The vice chairwoman of the Disability Commission, Emma Cornwell, said she was injured last May when a broken sidewalk on Bedford Terrace trapped the front wheels of her wheelchair and caused her to tip over. Her father was with her and grabbed her head before it hit the ground, but he suffered cuts to his hands, Cornwell said.

She said she wrote several letters to city officials urging them to repave the sidewalk, but she has not received any responses nearly a year later.

Five years ago, Cornwell was hit by a car on Hawley Street. She did not suffer any injuries, but her wheelchair was damaged.

“I was maneuvering around some broken-up, cracked sidewalk and went into the road to get around it, as I have done many, many times,” she said. “I have tried to push the city to repave the sidewalk (on Hawley Street) but that has also not happened or been acknowledged.”

Marshall said Northampton’s accessibility is no worse than most other communities, “which I suppose is a good thing, but everywhere in the United States needs to work on their accessibility.”

Organizers of the April 23 rally are seeking volunteers — including medics, legal observers and American Sign Language interpreters — and donations to offset costs. Those interested in volunteering or donating can email disableistmovement@gmail.com.

Liz Perry, an able-bodied friend of Macomber-Dubs and Marshall who is assisting with rally logistics, said that an emergency room nurse and an EMT have volunteered as medics so far, and the National Lawyers Guild MASS Chapter is sending neutral observers “just to make sure no one’s rights are violated.”

Perry said she used to live with Macomber-Dubs and his wife and she gained a deeper understanding of mobility challenges as a result. She said organizers chose to start the march at the train station because it has more accessible parking than other potential sites and plenty of room for accessible vehicles to maneuver.

During the march, Perry said, one chant will be, “We’re in the streets because the sidewalks suck.”

When the marchers arrive at Pulaski Park, Macomber-Dubs and other speakers who use wheelchairs will face one more challenge: getting onto the park’s stage, which has no ramp.

“Jeremy’s going to have to go on the grass,” Perry said.

Brian Steele can be reache d at bsteele@gazettenet.com.]]>