For me, access isn’t an ethereal concept; it’s practical. Access shapes, directs and guides my life. More to the point, lack of access shapes my life. Because I use a wheelchair, if I can’t get into a building, I can’t participate in the building’s activity. On Dec. 11, I couldn’t get into the Minnesota State Capitol, the seat of Minnesota’s democracy.
I have muscular dystrophy, a genetic, progressively debilitating muscle disease. Specifically, I have limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, a relatively mild variant. I say “relatively” because all muscular dystrophy is a one-way path to disability. The most common form, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, mostly affects boys and is mostly terminal by 20 years of age although that’s changing.
Consequently, I consider myself fortunate. I was diagnosed at 40 and didn’t start using a power wheelchair until two years ago. I rely on my chair to cover distance and, increasingly, to rise from a sitting position but I still walk with a cane around the house and office. I’m not eager to give up walking any time soon but I know that day is coming.
Dec. 9 was a big snow day. We had a foot fall in our yard. On Dec. 10, as everyone was digging out, I worked from home. I wrote a Minnesota 2020 Hindsight blog post about gratefully watching St Paul’s snowplows clear our street. Living in Minnesota means learning to accommodate the weather, handicapped or not. A foot of wet snow, followed by sub-freezing temperatures, wreaks havoc despite the best efforts of underfunded public road maintenance departments. I’m from here. I know this.
On Tuesday midmorning, I had an event at the state capitol. I left early, allowing extra time for post-storm travel. The streets were sloppy and slidey but traffic moved with cautious determination. I made it to the capitol with time to spare.
The capitol is a wonderful, magnificent building, inviting and welcoming while communicating policymaking’s gravity. But it’s not the most accessible place in the world. As reasonable security precautions, all public foot traffic enters through the main, ceremonial entrance exactly as architect Cass Gilbert designed. Every other portal requires a coded ID badge. The handicapped accessible entrance is underneath the main steps, off of the old carriage portico. It’s unstaffed, requiring buzzing the security office for remote lock release to enter the building. I was prepared for this. I wasn’t expecting a parking problem.
Parking at the capitol is always tight, especially during the legislative session. Both the public and assigned spots had been cleared of snow. The handicapped parking spaces at the capitol steps’ base were not. Not only were they snowed in, the sidewalk next to them hadn’t been shoveled either. I couldn’t park. I couldn’t exit my accessible minivan. I was stuck, looking up at the capitol but unable to reach it. I didn’t make my event.
This happens to me a lot. It’s a reality of my physical limitations. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), government and commercial space is head and shoulders more accessible than nearly all homes. Pretty much every Minnesota house is three-to-five vertical steps from sidewalk to door which, for a wheelchair user, is three-to-five steps too many. So, I don’t go to house parties much anymore.
Some of my favorite restaurants and coffee shops are in older buildings. Many accessibility requirements are waived because the business use predates ADA. They’re not required to improve accessibility, only to be safety and fire-code compliant. Still, more often than not, accessibility is an operational afterthought. A packed place, with tables and chairs shoved cheek to jowl is almost as inaccessible as a four-inch curb. So, I don’t go to those restaurants much anymore either.
I’m just one person but I represent many more. Increasingly, as the baby-boomer population ages, public accessibility becomes a financially make-or-break issue for service and hospitality businesses. This, in turn, reveals the public policy issue. Minnesota is stronger, better and more prosperous when we reduce barriers to access, expanding productivity and profitability. When I can’t enter your place of business, you leave my money on the table.
Coincidentally, in the mail, I received my Muscular Dystrophy Association Quarterly Review announcing an “Online Tips for Success” resource kit, including a section on advocating to elected officials. “You,” it notes, “are an expert on you. Share your personal experience.” Snow and blocked handicapped parking spaces might slow me down but they’re never going to silence me.
Lots of parking spaces were still blocked two days after the storm. The state capitol’s parking situation wasn’t exceptional, just highly symbolic. Smart public policy considers challenges, analyzes data and creates a plan. When we focus on what matters, Minnesota moves forward. Access matters.