The personal cost of access

This morning ran as its top video, a story about making city hall accessible in San Francisco and entitled it “Access or Excess”.

Other bloggers have covered this story, but what struck me is how this story fails to give equal play to the fact that those of us with disabilities who need access in our homes face extraordinarily high costs as well – and how these issues are not being addressed in the media although these situations happen every day of the week.

Historically, we are not so far from the days when it was assumed that people with disabilities should remain institutionalized or at home, shut away from the world. This kind of thinking often attaches a label of “entitlement” to a request for accommodations. This is quickly followed by the often exaggerated fear about the cost of accommodations.

And what gets lost in all of this is that the cost of accommodations can be brought down by changing other laws that raise the cost, that have nothing to do with installing a ramp, per se. This story talks about how that may work for a city, but let’s talk about how laws that may work in other instances but don’t work for people with disabilities trying to get accommodations in their homes wreak havoc and result in “excess”. Let me give you an example.

When I needed a ramp, the laws required that I obtain a variance. I was told I could put up a ‘temporary ramp’ to allow myself to get out of my house to work, but that would have to be taken down after I obtained the variance. As an individual, these laws required me to pay for the following:

1. An engineer and architect and a lawyer for the variance hearing to draw up paperwork, plans, blueprints, etc. and to appear at the hearing. There had to be a hearing where neighbors could object to the ramp which they luckily did not. Neighbors and people within a certain area had to be notified about the construction.
2. The cost of materials for two ramps (temporary and permanent), cost of labor for two ramps and lost time from work due to the delay in obtaining not only the variance but when the temporary ramp had to be replaced (when I couldn’t get in/out).

Thousands and thousands of dollars which I had no way to recoup. I had people who helped me out, forcing me to rely on their charity because of the enormous cost although I was working. And the delays because of the procedures involved cost me wages, further compromising my ability to pay.

Now no one would argue that we should do away with variances. The need to get one protects neighbors. However, applying variance law to an individual who is in a wheelchair and trying to get out of his/her house, as you can see, created chaos. There was no streamlined procedure available to reduce the costs, no way to speed up the process so I could avoid having to build two ramps.

So when I see the headline “Access or Excess”, I am more likely to think that it is not the fact that access is required that’s the problem, but that laws and requirements have not been adjusted in conjunction with the Americans with Disabilities Act so that, overall, the cost factor can be kept at a reasonable level. This, to me, is a more pressing issue, since I know that every day someone in a wheelchair sits at their front door needing to get outside without the resources to jump through the hoops our current procedures entail.

Isn’t it a waste of money for individuals to have to spend that much money too? And how does one measure the cost of the delays involved? I’m not sure, even years after I went through all of that, that you can measure it. But I will tell you, it’s excessive.

[If you haven’t already, go on over and read the list of where the money for the project in San Francisco is slated to go (scroll down a bit over there). Perhaps it will become clear that building the ramp itself is not really what’s expensive.]

Copyright 2008 Ruth Harrigan

1 Comment

Filed under essay

One response to “The personal cost of access

  1. Reblogged this on DIFFERENT, LIKE YOU. and commented:
    A great eye-opener on accessible housing.

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