CHICAGO — For those in a wheelchair, navigating the sidewalks of Chicago can be treacherous.
Kevin Sullivan, a 32-year-old from Palatine, was born with a condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita which affects the range of motion in his arms and legs.
Sullivan commuted to the city daily before the pandemic, and on a recent trip downtown he was shocked to still see the corner of Fulton and Jefferson.
The curb at the intersection has no curb cut for wheelchairs to access the crosswalk, nor a tactile strip. Those alert visually impaired people when they are about to enter the street.
Sullivan reported the issue at this intersection to 311 four years ago, but it was never fixed.
“I’m not sure where that lies on their priority list but apparently it’s not very high,” Sullivan said.
Damaged curb cuts or ramps like this one are a common sight across the city, as well as broken or missing tactile plates. Both are required at all crosswalks under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed in 1990.
The Chicago Department of Transportation is tasked with maintaining sidewalks.
Chicago’s capital bond funding provides $64.1 million for sidewalks and pedestrian right-of-way infrastructure projects over the next two years. CDOT reports it has installed more than 137,000 compliant ramps since 2006, and 7,600 this year, saying it prioritizes based on condition, fixing the worst spots first.
“If it is particularly egregious and there is a lot of push to fix it every once in a while they’ll fix it but that’s extremely rare,” said Laura Saltzman, a transportation analyst with Access Living, a center for independent living for people with a wide range of disabilities. “Disabled people deserve to be able to get around. We all deserve to be able to get an education, and have housing and be able to use transportation.”
Of the Chicago Transit Authority’s 145 rail stations, only 70% of them are wheelchair accessible. That’s a long way from only 6% when the ADA passed.
Compared to New York City, which is only 25% accessible, Chicago is making strides.
“CTA is committed to making all our rail stations wheelchair accessible,” Erin Fiorini, CTA’s director of infrastructure and capitol program oversight, said.
The ASAP, or All Stations Accessibility Program, is not a quick fix as the acronym implies, but a 20-year $2.1 billion plan.
It has four phases and the first includes a complete rebuild and elevator installation at the Austin Green Line stop set for this spring. Also in phase one, accessibility upgrades at California, Montrose, Racine, and four stops on the Red Line at Berwyn, Bryn Mawr, Argyle and Lawrence which will be completed by 2026.
But progress hasn’t always felt prioritized by the disabled community.
In 2019, the Belmont stop received a bold, blue $17 million facade update, but no elevator installation.
“It is very challenging over there. It’s a subway station and you have to go through the street, get through all the utilities under the mezzanine level. That’s a lot of money to do that work alone,” Fiorini said.
“We do need to think about what helps people the most, and when it comes to updating stations, I think CDOT and CTA should prioritize use and function over their appearance,” Saltzman said.
As part of the ASAP plan, all 160 existing elevators at CTA stations will be repaired or replaced as well.
“The elevators are broken constantly. If the elevators are running they could be filled with human urine and they’re disgusting. It makes us feel like we don’t matter,” Sullivan said.
Commuting on the CTA isn’t always easy even at accessible stations.
WGN followed along with Sullivan into the subway Red Line stop at State and Lake. When alone, he often has to wait for an attendant to open the access gate for him after scanning his Ventra app, wishing the gate opened automatically. Without the use of his arms, Kevin uses his forehead to press the elevator buttons.
Once on the platform, he has to find an attendant to get a loading ramp. On the Sunday we went with him, after waiting for 30 minutes, Sullivan never made a train because they were all too full for his wheelchair to fit.
In Chicago Public Schools, accessibility is difficult as well.
“We’ve gotten to the 52% goal in 26 years so that tells you it take as little while. It’s mostly due to lack of funding. If we had all the money in the world we could make everything accessible,” Bob Taras, CPS manager of capital and facilities program, said.
Only about half of all CPS schools are wheelchair accessible. The rest only have first-floor access or are entirely inaccessible.
Belmont Cragin Elementary, which was built last year, is the gold standard when it comes to ADA compliance. It has a lift for students to reach the gymnasium stage, accessible lockers, water fountains, playground and an elevator.
CPS says aging schools, some built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, can be a challenge to update.
“The walls that were constructed way back then are much thicker and to actually do any type of penetration to make sure every floor is served is much more difficult. You have to do structural modifications in terms of the foundation and soil to make sure the existing foundation can take the additional load of the elevator,” Taras said.
CPS reports it serves roughly 67,000 students with disabilities. Of those, 1,290 students require a wheelchair-accessible building.
According to the CPS Education Master Plan report just released last month, it will cost $14.4 billion to repair and modernize schools and $598 million to make all schools wheelchair accessible.
There is currently no timeline in place to reach that goal.
The district is currently in year four of a five-year $100 million capital improvement commitment. Funding comes from a combination of bond, TIF, and state money.
“It always has been a priority. CPS has been very much on the forefront of making sure we serve the needs of a disabled population. I think we will continue to do that in the future,” Taras said.
Whether it’s in the classroom or commuting, committing to improvements is what those in the disabled community say we should all care about.
“For folks who don’t think it’s an issue, you can become disabled at any time,” Saltzman said. “Someone in your family can become disabled at any time. I would hope you would care about it because you just care about people.”
“I think there’s a lot more that can be done to improve for everyone. Not just for me in a wheelchair, but for the mom and dad pushing a stroller, for the elderly person who is using a cane or crutches. These things I’m suggesting are not just for me but are for everyone who chooses to visit this city,” Sullivan said.