Although the American Disabilities Act was passed 23 years ago, one Seymour resident says public spaces in his town remain inaccessible for wheelchair users. Town officials and state representatives react.
Connecticut’s cities and towns are supposed to provide equal access to public buildings for disabled citizens, however wheelchair-bound Seymour resident Joseph Luciano says his hometown is still missing crucial basics.
Just to get to town hall, Luciano says he puts his life on the line because he is unable to access the sidewalks. The routine task of checking his mail at his apartment building sends him into a busy street because a segment of curb prevents him from accessing it.
“I discovered I couldn't get to the mailboxes unless I drove away from them through the parking lot and out into the street and back again,” Luciano explained. “And there was a hill that was too steep and I was afraid I would tip over backwards.”
Since having a stroke 2 years ago, Luciano has been confined to a wheelchair and only has use of one arm. He says he hasn’t let his disability get the best of him – he lives independently, cooks for himself and even plays jazz piano with one hand. However, he discovered not all public access is created equal.
“During Christmas time when I was coming back into the parking lot from getting my mail, a resident speeding out almost hit me head on. He stopped a few inches from my legs,” Luciano recalled.
He says mailbox access is just the beginning of the problems. He can't get into the town hall and many local businesses without riding on busy roads. He says there aren't enough wheelchair-accessible ramps, also known as “curb cuts” to get onto the sidewalks.
“It makes me feel left out,” Luciano said. “I had no idea a person with disabilities had these problems until I became one a couple of years ago.”
Luciano filed an American Disabilities Act (ADA) complaint against the town of Seymour. Shortly thereafter, the town and his property owner eliminated the curb along the mailbox area. However, access to the town hall and the post office still remains unchanged.
When we pressed the town on the issue, Director of Economic Development Fred Messore said the town council cannot afford to make the changes.
“We are going through a budget process right now and I just don't have that in my personal budget, meaning economic development, for sidewalks,” Messore said in an interview. “The estimates we have are about $259,000.”
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters asked why the town does not build temporary ramps with its own concrete to keep Luciano safe. Messore cited a “code problem.”
“There is a bureaucracy you have to follow when you're dealing with municipal government,” Messore said. “It really comes down to money. We are really trying to uncover to get funding from different sources.”
The town has turned to the state for assistance. Officials applied for a grant from the Department of Economic and Community Development's Main Street Investment Fund for the construction of curb cuts and install automatic doors in public buildings, another request put forth in Luciano’s various complaints.
However, if they don't win support from the grant, Messore says they don't have a backup plan at this time.
State advocates say the town must find a way, otherwise they could be subject to federal investigation.
“The Justice Department can investigate,” said Jim McGaughey, Executive Director of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities. “The U.S. Department of Justice has a project for civic access where they will come in and do a review of a town. They've done that to several towns in Connecticut. They look top to bottom program access and the transition planning.”
McGaughey also says equal access is necessary for a growing, aging population.
“The truth is as our population ages and more of us acquire age-related disabilities, it's becoming an expectation. So it's not just the legal requirements. The demographic pressure is there too,” he said.
The town of Seymour says it expects to hear if it wins grant money from the Main Street Investment Fund by the end of this month.