Boston Progresses Towards Accessibility

Written: Oct. 5 2016

Gripping the plastic bags that hold her two American Girl dolls, 6-year-old Sophie Evans coasts through Downtown Boston without her feet ever touching the ground. In fact, she doesn’t leaves her mother’s lap.

Sophie’s mother, 36-year-old Crystal Evans, navigates a 350lbs power wheelchair over the smooth tile in South Station, through the automatic double doors, onto the wide sidewalks of the Financial District, into the stampede of commuters, and then onto the patchy pavement of Chinatown. Sophie’s knuckles turn white as she prepares herself, and her dolls, for the uneven sidewalk and steep curb cuts.

Some areas in Boston are better than others for a person with disabilities.

Evans has neuromuscular disease and is supported by a ventilator. In 2003, when her disease started progressing, she moved from her home in Concord, New Hampshire to Massachusetts in search of better accessibility. Today, she lives in Braintree where she makes and sells homemade party-supplies.

“In New Hampshire, you’re just screwed if you don’t have a car,” said Evans. “I came down here because I knew I could be independent with this public transit. The public transit here is fantastic for a person with disabilities, in my personal opinion.”

Boston’s development as a metropolis is visible in its infrastructure. Sculptures commemorating Boston’s founding fathers and plaques marking historic battles stand alongside skyscrapers with automatic doors and elevators. The new exists with the old. Yet, in this historic city, there is a battle between preservation and progression.

In neighborhoods like Beacon Hill, Back Bay, and the South End, the charm is in the historic Brownstones and brick roads– trademarks of Boston that are protected by civic preservation associations. Evans, and most people with mobility or vision impairments, avoid these neighborhoods because Brownstones don’t have ramps and uneven brick is dangerous and difficult to travel on.

“It’s painful, your whole body is jiggling,” said Evans. “You also go numbish. It’s aggravating.”

In 2007, former Mayor Thomas Menino passed a directive preventing new brick sidewalks. Instead, new sidewalks will be concrete and when the existing brick needs repair, it will be replaced with wire-cut brick, which is a smoother and flatter substitute.

Appointed in 2010 as the Commissioner For Persons With Disabilities, Kristen McCosh’s first project was to make City Hall Plaza accessible to everyone by building fully ADA compliant ramps, bathrooms, and access paths. She then spearheaded a 15-year plan to implement 15,000 curb cuts around the city– a project she predicts will be complete in 10 years.

“In the community, I tend to have my work cut out for me. What I like to say is Boston is an old city, we’re a winter city, we’re a proud city, and we’re a vertical city,” said McCosh. “We have everything going against us as far as infrastructure, but we have really progressive leadership.”

In September 2016, the MBTA partnered with ridesharing services Uber and Lyft to give subsidized rides to customers with disabilities.

The hope is that this will be a less expensive and more efficient way for people to get around Boston. The MBTA’s door-to-door ridesharing service, Ride, costs customers between $3.15 and $5.25 per trip, but Uber and Lyft will charge $2 for customers. The MBTA will pay the next $13 and any costs beyond the first $15, are billed to the rider.

Ride customers must provide, 24 hours in advance, what time they need to arrive at their location and what time they’ll be departing. With Uber and Lyft, mobility-impaired customers can call on the spot.

“It took too long,” said Alan Labonte, 77. “It was taking me sometimes two or three hours. It’s not their fault, they had to maximize their resources.”

Living the farthest away, Labonte was often the last to be picked up from his home in Rockland. It became impractical for him. Instead of using Ride, Labonte started taking his blue scooter onto the T.

Before his stop, Labonte presses the help button in the handicapped seating section which notifies the T driver to manually lower a ramp onto the track. Amid a dense rush-hour crowd and next to a stroller, Labonte attempts a three-point turn. It is time-consuming and requires people to clear a path for him, but he exits smoothly.

Before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991, Labonte served as a Naval Aviator during Vietnam. He travels via MBTA from his home in Rockland to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Jamaica Plain where he works in management analysis.

“I think they’ve worked hard to make all public transit accessible,” said Labonte in his soft voice. “It’s wonderful. I have used the T for a while, which takes a little time, but for people with really severe disabilities, it’s wonderful.”

In addition to the ridesharing services, the city plans to have 100 wheelchair accessible taxi vehicles fully ADA compliant by 2017. So far, 29 are in full compliance.

Another improvement came this September when CEO and President of Perkins School for the Blind, Dave Power, released a smartphone app called BlindWays. The app assists people who have vision impairments with locating bus stops by using crowd-sourced landmarks that will signify to users when they are close to the bus stop.

And that’s not the only app. Though still in the beginning stages, Boston’s Public Works is working to design an app that will show wheelchair-users curb cuts, sidewalk material and slope, and other street accessibility and conditions.

“We definitely try to stay on the forefront of emerging ideas and technology,” said McCosh.

In the meantime, Crystal Evans is her own GPS. She formed cut-throughs to take to her appointments at Boston Medical Center. She knows where the smoothly paved roads are and which sidewalks are the largest. She avoids the Green Line, takes precaution on trash day, steers clear of the brick-road neighborhoods, and revels in the commuter rail’s outlets that can charge her ventilator.

Boston still has work to do, but each reform paves a smoother path towards full accessibility.

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