Is Ann Arbor accessible for people with disabilities?

Ann Arbor prides itself on being an inclusive town, but what have we been doing to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities? Quite a bit – although there is still room for improvement.


Ann Arbor's Commission on Disability Issues (henceforth referred to as the Commission) has experienced several years of successes. In recent years the commission's accomplishments have included completing a sensory garden at Liberty Plaza and establishing a training program to help the Ann Arbor Police Department work better with people with disabilities. The Commission has also been heavily involved in the passage of a city ordinance requiring closed captioning on televisions in public places.


"It's too easy to see people as not deserving everything that a person without disabilities deserves — you need to see everyone as a whole person," says Commission chair Sally Hart Petersen. "That is the key to inclusivity. There seems to be this belief that, well, it's okay if that (person with a disability) doesn't get what she wants right now. She'll forget anyway. And that's just not the case. Our commission is doing everything we can to alleviate those types of beliefs."


Advances for people with disabilities have also occurred outside the Commission's purview. Since the Ann Arbor District Library took over administration of the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled in 2009, available materials have greatly expanded to include books, magazines, and videos in formats including digital download, large print, Braille, and descriptive video. A universal access playground fully useable by people who are in wheelchairs will open at Gallup Park this summer, thanks to a $450,000 gift from the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor. And this year also saw the beginning of Ann Arbor Inclusive, a show on CTN that spreads awareness of people with disabilities.


Nonetheless, Commission member Alison Stroud says Ann Arbor still has to confront the unhelpful attitudes that often surround disability.


"The cultural and attitudinal barriers can greatly contribute to other barriers, such as accessibility, policy, and social barriers," Stroud says. "Some negative stereotypes about having a disability still exist because, to many people, having a disability means a personal tragedy, a punishment, or an indication of a profound lack of ability to behave as expected in a society."


Assisting people with visual impairments


Despite numerous advancements, Ann Arbor residents with disabilities and their advocates still see lots of room for improvement. Els Nieuwenhuijsen, a longtime activist and education program coordinator for the Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry Team at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, says there is a "disconnect" between local service providers and the community they serve.


When it comes to public health, Nieuwenhuijsen says, "are we really including people who are low vision or blind? Health education materials, for example, are not very accessible to people who cannot use them electronically. It seems we are focused on the particular health issues but not on the broader issues of inclusion of those with disabilities."


Cathy Koyanagi, a person who is legally blind, concurs: "Just having large print business cards and forms at the hospitals would be a huge help."


Another way businesses can start the trend toward inclusiveness is by consulting people who are blind on where Braille labels should be placed.


"There is no systematic approach to placing Braille (labels), so you have to search around to find them," Koyanagi says. "Most people (who are blind) don't know Braille — people have age-related vision loss and Braille is very hard to learn."


People who do learn often learn the Braille alphabet, known as Grade 1 Braille. Grade 2 Braille is a code of short-form words and letter contractions. Koyanagi says labels are often in Grade 2, which she and many others don't know.


Koyanagi uses a combination of JAWS (a computer program that reads onscreen text aloud) and magnification to help her access the internet, but even that's not a surefire solution.


"City websites could definitely be better," she says. "(JAWS) doesn't always work because the website just isn't set up for it. There should be people working on the websites who use the products and can offer advice for improvement."


Assisting people with physical disabilities


Nieuwenhuijsen says there is room for improvement in city services for people with physical disabilities as well.


"Many benches in the city are divided by railings and often very low to the ground," she says. "This can make it difficult to get in and out of them, as people with physical disabilities need a good arm rest to assist them."


People who use a wheelchair or assistive walking device may also encounter challenges in finding a truly accessible place to live. Kathleen Kosobud, a person with physical limitations, says she and her real estate agent repeatedly ran into problems when they were looking for an accessible condominium.


"We would get to a first-floor condo with no steps leading up to it, but the sidewalk would have five or six tiers that were impossible for me to manage," Kosobud says.


To this end, Nieuwenhuijsen suggests that architects, developers, and builders could specialize in one-level condominiums or apartments and advertise their accessible living units to buyers. Kosobud agrees.


"From my perspective, accessibility is about the sidewalks, the distance between the car and condo, an attached garage that would allow me to avoid an icy driveway … not just whether steps are inside the place," she says.


Thinking big-picture

Local advocates for people with disabilities agree that big-picture strategies are key to improving Ann Arbor's accessibility. For example, universal design – design of all environments and products so that they are inherently accessible to all people with disabilities – is one step in the right direction, Nieuwenhuijsen says.


For people with hearing impairments, she suggests, we could equip rooms with the loop system, an assistive listening technology that works with most hearing aids. Partnerships between the university, health system, and businesses "would be one way to get this started," Nieuwenhuijsen says.


Petersen says a good start would be hiring a city expert on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so ADA regulations would be "ingrained in the staff."


"Someone could look at a design and proactively say, 'This needs ADA requirements here and here,' as opposed to coming in later in the process," she says.

Programs targeted at people who are elderly often overlap with needs of the disability community, and solutions can be borrowed from programs for seniors. City councilmember and Commission member Kirk Westphal suggests that a starting point might be for Ann Arbor to join the AARP's Network of Age-Friendly Communities. Westphal co-chaired a 2013 AARP symposium on such communities in Michigan. The certification process begins with an assessment of existing resources and needs, which has yet to happen in Ann Arbor.


"We do a lot right," Westphal says. "But we have a long way to go."


With a thriving economy, a highly desirable community, and people dedicated to the cause, Ann Arbor is ripe to lead others in establishing best practices for making communities inclusive to all people. Westphal says it's important that the city continue working to break down barriers.


"I tell my kids, and I think it applies here: To those who much is given, much is expected," Westphal says. "We are on lists of great places to live, to retire, for older adults … but we always have to push harder."


Patti Smith lives in Ann Arbor, the best city on earth. By day, she is a special education teacher. By night, she writes novels (that she hopes to sell one day) and articles for Mittenbrew, the Ann, Pulp, the Ann Arbor Observer, and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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