Construction Project Highlights Accessibility Issues for People With Disabilities

Even though federal law requires a minimum of 36 inches of clear path of travel, the NBC10 Boston Investigators found plenty of examples that didn't measure up. Disability rights advocates say it's an obstacle they encounter all over the Boston area.

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Claire Bergstresser took her first look at the stretch of sidewalk in Dedham and told us she felt a sense of anxiety.

"All it takes is one little thing to go wrong … for catastrophic danger," she said.

Bergstresser, a wheelchair user, stared ahead at the obstacles in her path of travel. A maze of utility poles that accompanied MassDOT construction work on Bridge Street created some tough choices.

We invited Bergstresser to the location to get her insight on the accessibility for people with disabilities. As she looked at one section of sidewalk with two side-by-side utility poles sprouting from the pavement, Bergstresser shared her thought process.

"I feel fear," she said. "I have to make a choice. If I go on the right side, it's so narrow. What if I miss by an inch and flip into the street?"

Claire Bergstresser explains her options to NBC10 Boston's Ryan Kath

Down the road, a sign advised pedestrians the sidewalk was closed and directed them to an unpaved island with a crosswalk button.

"That whole neighborhood is effectively shut off to a person who uses a wheelchair," said Tom Murphy, a senior attorney with the Disability Law Center.

Murphy also met us at the location to give his assessment of the ADA-related issues. His organization recently reached an agreement with the City of Boston to install a curb ramp in hundreds of intersections every year until every sidewalk is accessible.

According to Murphy, federal law requires a minimum of 36 inches for clear path of travel. As we walked around the area with a tape measure, it was easy to find plenty of examples that did not measure up.

Other spots reached the bare minimum, but left nearly no margin for error between the sidewalk and heavily-traveled street.

When NBC10 Boston first brought the sidewalk condition to the attention of MassDOT, a spokesperson wrote that the condition was temporary, and that the utility poles would be removed and adjusted to provide full ADA accessibility by November.

But Murphy said that was no excuse, especially when the NBC10 Boston Investigators have already reported that double poles are rarely removed with the 90-day required timeframe, and instead sometimes languish in communities for years.

"It says they are not thinking about people with disabilities," Murphy said. "They need to create an alternate path of travel that's accessible. It's as simple as that."

Double poles in Dedham

John Tocci, who chairs the Dedham Commission on Disability, said sidewalk accessibility has been a long-standing problem around town. He said the added bureaucracy of state-owned roadways and utility companies who oversee infrastructure only complicates the issue.

"A simple drive around town reveals the extraordinary number of 'double poles' blocking sidewalks," Tocci said. "This bespeaks a lack of attention and cooperation that must be remedied."

But beyond Dedham, disability advocates told us it's an issue they regularly encounter all over the area.

In Somerville, it's a fight Holly Simione knows all too well. While pushing an empty wheelchair, Simione showed us how difficult it can be to navigate her neighborhood.

In several locations, pavement lifted and buckled by large trees made it difficult. In one spot, Simione pointed to a fire hydrant placed in the middle of the sidewalk.

Holly Simione demonstrates pushing a wheelchair on the sidewalk

Simione said she wishes there was more oversight for ADA compliance before projects are finalized.

"It didn't have to go there," she said. "Now it has to be moved at a cost to the city."

There is a reason Simione is so passionate: her daughter, Elizabeth, had severe physical disabilities and needed to be pushed in a wheelchair. She died last year at the age of 18.

Simione now sits on the city's commission for persons with disabilities.

"Every person deserves to walk safely," Simione said. "And I couldn't do that for my daughter her whole life."

Denise Taylor, a spokesperson for the City of Somerville, said sidewalks are annually assessed for ADA accessibility, and it's also a topic reported by residents via the 311 system.

Priority for repair is established based on factors like safety, efficiency and frequency of usage, Taylor said.

The fire hydrant we observed met the minimum standards with a 37-inch measurement, but "all agreed the hydrant could and should be moved to create greater clearance," according to Taylor. That work should occur within days.

As for the project in Dedham, we sent MassDOT some of the photos and videos we'd gathered that illustrated the problem.

The agency then dispatched crews to make more temporary room around the utility poles. They also installed proper ramps and poured an asphalt sidewalk in the island with the pedestrian push button.

MassDOT added extra pavement for pathway around utility poles

Bergstresser was glad to hear about the adjustments, but wants to see a more proactive approach.

"This is really a message to future project. Please think about us," she said. "Even if it's temporary, you still need to have a way for different body types to get around the area. Because if I can't get around, I might be risking my life."

Ryan Kath can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook

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