A year and a half ago, Ross Dolloff moved to Baltimore in search of a fresh start. Partially paralyzed for more than a decade, he expected to face some hurdles as he adjusted to life in a new city.

Though Dolloff enjoys living in Baltimore and finds it easier to navigate than other cities, he’s still felt excluded from certain areas and activities due to his disability. He’s had difficulty navigating sidewalks, farmers markets and outdoor festivals in his wheelchair. Restaurants and bars don’t often offer tables low enough to accommodate him, and many don’t have bathrooms he can use. While journeying around Canton and the Inner Harbor promenade, he fears falling in and drowning.

Dolloff asked The Baltimore Banner: What can be done to make Baltimore better for people with mobility disabilities?

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Our reporting found that the city anticipates an increase in funding in the coming fiscal year to make sidewalks and streets more accessible. But that investment would be a fraction of the actual cost to fix the problem entirely, city records show. And it’s unclear that City Council members might alter the budget this year.

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The stakes for Baltimore are high. The city is locked in a lawsuit with disability rights advocates over its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 federal civil rights law mandating equal opportunity for residents with physical or mental impairments. Similar lawsuits have resulted in massive settlements in other cities, including Los Angeles, which agreed to pay an estimated $1.4 billion over 30 years for sidewalk repairs.

The cost of compliance

The scope of the problem in Baltimore is enormous. In 2021, city transportation officials wrote in an application for COVID-19 relief funds that more than 98% of public curb ramps and median treatments, 66% of sidewalk miles, 80% of driveway aprons, 16% of crosswalks and 33% of pedestrian signals citywide do not comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Officials estimated that it would cost a staggering $657 million to make its pedestrian system — sidewalks, crosswalks and footpaths, for example — ADA-compliant. That’s more than the entirety of the city’s pandemic aid package of $641 million. Even if the city spent every cent on improving accessibility, it still wouldn’t be enough.

Transportation officials requested much less in their application for American Rescue Plan Act funds, which remains pending. They sought just $45 million to make upgrades to Baltimore’s transit corridors and streets within an eighth of a mile of transit stops.

“A major barrier that the pandemic exacerbated is the lack of ADA compliant routes from home to required destinations,” like hospitals, grocery stores and vaccination sites, officials wrote in the application.

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Transportation officials estimated that nearly 97,000 people in the city live with some type of disability — accounting for a larger share of the population than in Maryland or the country overall.

“Infrastructure is very expensive to fix, and so is the expertise needed to improve things,” said Jon Froelich, associate professor in human-computer interaction at the University of Washington’s Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. “It’s really a fraught and complex issue.”

Froelich is collaborating with Yochai Eisenberg, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, on an interactive map that enables advocates, city officials and people with mobility disabilities to track non-compliance where they live and work at a relatively low cost. The crowdsourcing tool already has empowered advocates in Newberg, Oregon, to successfully lobby for change from their elected representatives, Eisenberg said, and could eventually help officials across the country avoid litigation.

“The threat of a lawsuit is very real,” said Eisenberg, who focuses on disability policy and urban planning. “And the path is going to be more expensive and strict in terms of the deadlines they need to meet.”

In the fiscal year 2024 budget, Baltimore officials plan to allocate $16 million in COVID relief funds the city has already received to support ADA investment in sidewalks and streets, preliminary budget documents show.

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Cirilo Manego, a former spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, said last month that, all in all, the allocated funds represent an increase over last year’s ADA-related project budget, but he left open the possibility that the funds could get cut. City Council members wield new power this year to make trims and reallocate funds as they see fit.

The city Department of Transportation’s ADA coordinator did not respond to requests for an interview about the city’s remediation efforts.

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‘A desperate, desperate need’

The increased funding for ADA initiatives may be attributed to a “trifecta” of pressures on city and state officials to invest more in compliance measures, said Jed Weeks, interim director at Bikemore, a Baltimore-based transit advocacy group.

The Complete Streets ordinance, a 2018 City Council mandate that provides guidance for future transportation infrastructure projects, outlines robust ADA accommodation, planning and maintenance. “It requires them, by law, to put resources in other sections of DOT [the Department of Transportation] they may not would have otherwise,” Weeks said.

Then there’s the open complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice filed by Disability Rights Maryland against the state’s transportation administration for its oversight of its paratransit system, MobilityLink, which endured staff shortages and service disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic. The state agency declined to comment on the pending complaint but wrote in a statement that staffing shortfalls and on-time performance metrics have improved.

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And finally, Disability Rights Maryland filed a class-action complaint against the mayor and City Council in 2021, arguing that officials had not done enough to make the city’s streets, sidewalks, footpaths and crosswalks accessible to people with mobility disabilities. Attorneys for the city and the plaintiffs have begun settlement mediation over compliance with the decades-old ADA mandates, though disability justice attorneys said the case has been slow to move forward.

The city’s own data, published in a draft self-evaluation of its ADA compliance, highlighted the need for legal action, said David Prater, a Disability Rights Maryland attorney. The two parties have been in mediation with a magistrate, he said.

“There is a narrative out there about people with disabilities or their attorneys bringing lawsuits that are just around picayune things,” Prater said. “This stuff really, really matters: People cannot be in their community, and that’s something defendants in these ADA cases have neglected for decades.”

May Robinson, a Northeast Baltimore resident and secretary of the advocacy group Consumers for Accessible Ride Services, said she avoids journeying to unfamiliar places for fear of getting stranded, lost or forced to contend with rough terrain. Survivor of a brain stem stroke, she uses the state’s paratransit service to get around.

“What happens is you start going to same places over and over again ... and you get tired of the monotony,” Robinson said.

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Prater noted the disproportionate concentration of people with disabilities, as well as people subject to racial and income inequality, living in Baltimore. “There is a desperate, desperate need that the city has not paid needed efforts to address in the last 50 years,” he said.

The University of Illinois’ Eisenberg said very few cities and towns around the country have completed self-evaluations of their ADA compliance, and those that have often submit incomplete work.

One such draft plan published by the city’ transportation agency in early 2022 lays out in striking detail the extent of Baltimore’s accessibility problems. But many of its steps for compliance remain unfinished for now, marked simply “in development.” Manego said public input on the city’s plan would be ongoing throughout 2023.

Floyd Hartley and May Robinson take a portrait just outside the Banner newsroom, where they shared experiences about accessibility for those with disabilities in downtown Baltimore on March 23, 2023. (Paul Newson/The Baltimore Banner)

‘We’re not second-class citizens’

Baltimore likely cannot, and will not, address every non-compliance, said Nancy Horton, associate director of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center.

Nor should it, she said: “Balance is what the ADA is aiming for,” Horton said of the civil rights law. “We can’t always achieve perfection. Just because an entity is large doesn’t mean they’re acting in bad faith. They could really want to do the right things but feel like they have valid limitations.”

Horton’s suggestion represents the basis of city attorneys’ argument in the so-called sidewalks case — that perfection isn’t attainable.

Still, Horton, who has no involvement in the case, said the city’s lawyers will have to prove that they have gone to great lengths to maintain, repair and construct ADA-compliant infrastructure. ”They are public, and they’re using our money. So the things they do should be for all of us.”

Expectation and reality can feel worlds apart for members of the city’s disability community. Floyd Hartley, an East Baltimore resident and chair of Consumers for Accessible Ride Services, said it often takes a lived experience — such as an elected official having a disability or witnessing the trials of a close friend or family member with one — for lawmakers to develop an appetite for ADA-inspired change. He feels largely ignored.

“We’re not second-class citizens: We need to get to work, we need to go to doctor’s appointments, we need to go out and socialize: It’s the same as an able-bodied person,” he said.

Living with rheumatoid arthritis, Hartley uses MobilityLink, the state paratransit service, to get around in his wheelchair. During the height of the pandemic, the service stranded Hartley in downtown Baltimore from 3:30 p.m. until 8 p.m., long after his doctor’s office closed. He waited outside in the cold until a driver could come.

Even though the paratransit service has since improved, Hartley said, he and other activists don’t want to let up on the pressure. They have learned to become their own best advocates.