Navigating Oakland: Tour shows Senate group area’s accessibility issues
Stairs, heavy doors and sidewalks narrowed by utility poles, alfresco seating and sandwich board advertisements are among the barriers Graduate School of Public Health staffer DJ Stemmler navigates daily in Oakland.
Stemmler, who uses a power wheelchair, provided her perspective as the University Senate community relations committee (CRC) took to the streets last week for a firsthand look at accessibility in Oakland.
In addition to her work as a staffer in the HIV/AIDS prevention and care project in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, Stemmler is a consumer advocate and founding member of Oakland for All: Beyond Accessible, (oaklandforall.org), a group that advocates for a more accessible Oakland business district. Pitt, UPMC, the Oakland Business Improvement District (OBID) and Oakland Transportation Management Association (OTMA) are among the program’s partners.
Stemmler, along with Georgia Petropoulos, OBID executive director, and Kannu Sahni, Pitt’s director of Community Relations, pointed out what’s good, what’s bad and what’s improving as they led the committee on a half-mile trek through Oakland.
Said Petropoulos: “We take a lot for granted. The world was not designed for people who can’t see, who can’t walk, or who can’t hear.
“Sometimes we’re temporarily disabled,” she said, adding that Oakland should be a model community for accessibility in particular because the UPMC and VA hospitals are here.
The city’s hilly terrain can make traversing Oakland streets more difficult for wheelchair users who don’t use power chairs, Petropoulos pointed out. Stairs — up or down from the street level — pose additional problems for individuals with mobility challenges.
Sidewalks on Fifth and Forbes avenues are narrow in spots, the result of efforts to accommodate vehicle traffic. Add crowds and a few sandwich boards — some on the left, others on the right — and the sidewalk becomes an obstacle course.
Sandwich boards are among Stemmler’s biggest peeves: Eliminating them “would make moving around easier for everybody,” she says. “Think about lunchtime on Fifth Avenue, trying to dodge those boards and steps and all the other people,” she says. “I have a 350-pound machine and everyone gets out of the way,” whereas people who use a walker may have more difficulty managing in the midst of it all.
Many businesses have accommodations such as automatic doors, and temporary or permanent ramps to help patrons enter their buildings.
Although the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) became law 25 years ago, few businesses in Oakland can be considered truly accessible, Stemmler noted.
Even when there is no barrier at the door, service counters and bar seating may be too high or bathrooms may be impossible for wheelchair users to reach.
Restaurant menus and business websites may not accommodate patrons who are visually impaired.
Oakland for All aims for a positive approach in encouraging businesses to become more accessible through actions including an annual “ramp crawl” — a Cinco de Mayo bar crawl in which groups of participants, including some with disabilities, visit multiple bars and restaurants, spend money and have a good time.
Sahni noted that business owners then can see the value in making their establishments more accommodating.
“It’s a positive approach to encourage businesses to make it more accessible,” Petropoulos said. Cost often is the root of resistance from business and property owners. Oakland for All has grant money and can offer consulting to aid in making improvements, Petropoulos said.
The group meets monthly to strategize about issues that need addressing. Its influence can be seen in physical improvements, such as the newly painted blue curbs denoting handicap-accessible parking in Oakland and other city neighborhoods, and also in negotiating changes such as a bike lane policy that allows paratransit and other vehicles to enter bike lanes when necessary to pick up and drop off at the curb passengers with disabilities or special needs.
Accessibility isn’t just a matter of helping customers and attracting business, Stemmler says. Accommodation in employment is another facet of ADA.
Doctors’ offices, for example, may make their waiting rooms accessible, yet their office manager’s space may not be. “If you’re discriminating against customers you’re also discriminating against employees,” she said. When renovating an office or business, “Keep in mind, you want to attract consumers and business, but you also want to attract employees.”
Accessible housing also can be problematic, Stemmler says, noting that even when rental units are handicap-accessible, the monthly cost may be out of reach for an individual with a disability.
In other business:
• Tracy Soska said the upcoming Academically Based Community Engagement Idea Exchange, set for 2-5 p.m. Dec. 1 in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room, will feature faculty dialogue roundtables and a poster session/reception.
Speakers will discuss Pitt’s community engagement center initiative and roundtable discussion will focus on Homewood, the Hill District and Larimer — the three communities where centers are to be launched. A faculty panel will discuss applied research that engages, works with and benefits both the campus and the community.
“The idea is to promote more applied and engaged research and scholarship among faculty and get stronger recognition in the University for that,” he said.
• Sahni noted that presentations from last month’s p4 summit are posted at www.p4pittsburgh.org. The two-day conference, sponsored by the City of Pittsburgh and the Heinz Endowments, brought leaders together around the themes of people, place, planet and performance, with a focus on economic and social equity and justice.
• CRC’s next meeting is set for Jan. 17.
—Kimberly K. Barlow