The groundwork for mapping out the road to a more fully accessible Ridgefield has started.
Work on the town’s “transition plan” for handicapped accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was begun this week by the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD), a Boston-based organization that specializes in “human-centered or universal design that works seamlessly for people with disabilities and older people but also enhances everyone’s experience.”
The institute has a $75,000 contract with the town.
“What they’re doing is they’re looking at all these buildings, structures, parks, and programs to see they are accessible — as civil rights law, this is a very significant concept,” said Don Ciota, chairman of Ridgefield’s Commission on the Disabled.
“The ADA study is a project that should have been completed years ago. The law passed in 1990,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “But we are one of the few communities in the state of Connecticut that is actually completing a survey.”
Kathy Graham of Fairfield County Bank is involved each year in planning Downtown Ridgefield events, such as last weekend’s Spring Stroll. This year her perspective was broadened by sharing the event with her 94-year-old mother, who uses a wheelchair.
“The experience of pushing her in a wheelchair, all over our downtown area, raised my awareness of the accessibility issues that people with disabilities face every day,” Graham said.
The wheelchair made her conscious of problems — deteriorated curbs, narrow lanes between outdoor restaurant tables set up on the sidewalk, display racks inside stores too close together, businesses with steps but no ramps.
“I think that anyone working on our town’s ADA issues would seriously benefit from spending an hour pushing someone around in a wheelchair to get a better perspective of the issues,” Graham said. “Ridgefield is such a great town, but it needs to be a great town for everyone.”
The ADA study will be wide-ranging.
“They’re going to be doing all the town buildings, all the town structures, town programs,” Ciota said. “They’re going to be doing a selected amount of sidewalks in town. They’re going to be doing all the schools, the adjacent playgrounds and grounds of the school — playgrounds, ball fields.”
The study will encompass recreational settings, like Ballard Park and Martin Park Beach, and some open spaces.
“We’ve got 5,000 acres worth of open spaces in town. We’re going to select a number — it would be impractical to do them all, and some just aren’t conducive to being made accessible,” Ciota said. “We’ve worked with the Conservation Commission to select appropriate sites to review.”
But the ADA also sets standards for businesses — private properties that are open to public use — although these won’t be a focus of the study.
“It’s the hope of the Commission for the Disabled that businesses in town — which are also subject to ADA compliance — will take note of this and see to it that they’re striving for compliance with their own businesses,” Ciota said.
The team from the IHCD is headed by project manager Ana Julian.
“They’re going to be evaluating, and the plan is to call to our attention any possible deficiencies and come up with cost estimates as to what it would cost to fix these things,” Ciota said.
The town can then work from the list to start addressing the problems.
“There may be many items on this list. It may take several years to complete the list, but the town can prioritize and work toward eliminating items on this list as they go along,” he said.
“Due to fiscal and financial reasons, it may not be practical to do that all at once.”
There are some 90 to 100 town and school buildings to be studied, according to town Social Services Director Tony Phillips, who is the town’s ADA coordinator.
“It’s essentially all town buildings except for the sewer treatment — there were a couple of things we removed from the list to keep things under budget. The priority was places that have public access,” Phillips said.
“We’re primarily focused on where we have programs that are actively running.
“If we conceptualize it, this is programs first, facilities second,” Phillips said.
“We’re really worrying about where we offer programs, and making sure that those programs are accessible.”
There’s a lot to look at in the buildings — door widths, corridor widths, bathrooms, entrances, egress from one floor to another, pathways from the parking lot into the structures, Ciota said.
A report the IHCD did for Somerville, Mass., shows the kind of detail involved.
Among the things it addressed were restrooms at Somerville’s ice skating facility.
“Multi-user toilet rooms are provided near the entrance,” the report says. “In both toilet rooms, the lavatories are mounted too low, which obstructs the required knee clearance, and plumbing underneath the lavatories is unprotected. Inside the accessible stalls, the inside grab bar does not meet minimum allowable height.”
At Somerville’s high school, problems included doors that didn’t meet various ADA standards. “Many doors lack maneuvering clearance on the latch pull side; certain spaces have doors that do not provide the maximum 32-inch clear width for accessible doors; dozens of single and double-leaf doors exceed the maximum allowable force required to open them …”
There’s considerable detail in identifying problems.
“It gets rather particular,” Ciota said.
But the report isn’t necessarily dictatorial.
“The ADA allows accommodations in ways other than bricks and mortar,” he said.
“The ADA is a law of accommodation and discussion. It encourages community discussion in order to achieve compliance in ways that are acceptable to the Department of Justice and to the community,” Ciota said.
“What I like about this report from the [IHCD] is that they’re looking to do this on a community-sensitive basis, without being disruptive in any way.”
Phillips said sensible work-arounds can often accommodate handicapped people — construction projects aren’t always the solution.
“Not every facility has to be made accessible through bricks and mortar,” Phillips said. “I think that’s one of the fears.
“If a town had two pools, depending on the situation you may not have to make both of those pools accessible,” he said. “How big they are? How close are they? Does one offer some amenity that everyone wants?
“That’s why we have a professional company coming in to tell us where we need to do our work and where we’re OK.”
In Somerville, there were two city libraries, one accessible and one not. Rather than renovating the older library to meet accessibility standards, the solution was to make sure that any program offered at the older building was duplicated at the newer, accessible library building.
The IHCD envisions a six-month window to complete the study, according to Phillips.
“We’re likely to get a very thick binder,” he said.
Town officials will look for recommendations.
“We’ll be getting an action plan — transition plan is the technical term for it,” Phillips said. “It spells out what needs to be done, what priority it’ll have, when it’s going to happen.
“Yes, the document will have cost estimates,” he said.
“Then we’ll have a better idea of where to start and how long it’s going to take.
“Having the transition plan is one of the requirements for ADA compliance,” Phillips added.
“That will direct us what we’re going to do, when we‘re going to do it, how long it’s going to take.”
The scope of work includes “evaluation of programs, evaluation of facilities and adjacent rights-of-way, staff involvement such as review of draft policies and procedures, community involvement, and support of the town with data that becomes the new ADA transition plan,” Ciota said.
“The commission is appreciative to the first selectman and Board of Selectmen for having the vision to allow this project to go through. It took a long time for this to happen and it finally has happened, and they’ve been very supportive, and especially that they included the Board of Education in this project.”
The town is doing the study without a complaint having been filed, or a lawsuit.
“This is unusual, because this is being done by a town that is not under duress,” Ciota said.
“It’s far-sighted to be ahead of the curve on this.”