How an alarming photo of a wheelchair accident exposed L.A.’s shabby sidewalks
How could seeing someone start to tip out of a wheelchair toward the sidewalk not be upsetting and unsettling?
A lot of people told me that they winced at the photo by Brian van der Brug that appeared at the top of my last column.
Some suggested on social media that it was staged. One thought at first that it might be exploitative. It was neither.
The entirely unplanned moment that Van der Brug and I were on hand to witness did, however, make visible one of the many too-often-invisible challenges that disabled people face daily in our city.
I hope it jolted some people into taking notice of these fellow citizens, who are all around them and whose experiences and thoughts and needs and desires often go unacknowledged and unconsidered.
The image of David Radcliff in mid-fall on a patched and warped hill of tree-root-raised sidewalk also provided an all-too-real demonstration of why we must once and for all get on top of one particular daily danger in Los Angeles.
Radcliff, a TV writer who has cerebral palsy, said he would have been happy to have a different kind of photo of himself in the paper — but embraced this one because of the attention it brought and the opportunity it gave him to advocate for the disabled community and for sidewalk safety.
The problem with the sidewalks, as Radcliff’s case helped me understand, is that the city let things go and get worse and worse for decades. Now it’s hurrying to catch up, but the work takes time, and making a dent in the backlog of problems is tough.
This city has about 9,300 miles of sidewalk. Broken ones like the stretch on Jefferson Boulevard that toppled Radcliff’s wheelchair are so common here — and so frequently perilous or impassable to those who have disabilities that affect their mobility — that in 2015 the city committed to spending $1.4 billion over the next 30 years to fix these and other barriers to full and safe access to our city streets.
That promised effort, which launched two years ago, resolved a class-action lawsuit citing violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. To help speed repairs for those with disabilities that affect their mobility, the city added an additional $10 million in each of the last two fiscal years to its $31-million annual budget commitment.
But here’s the thing: In the mid-1970s, the city accepted legal responsibility for fixing sidewalks damaged by tree roots, which used to be property owners’ problem. Then for about a quarter-century, it didn’t allocate much money to do any of those repairs. Over time, the list of pressing problems grew well beyond the capacity to catch up. And the new effort started with a backlog of about 400 disability-related high-priority requests.
It’s understandable, then, that in the new effort’s early days, L.A. still has many, many miles of root-buckled, crumbling, cracked and badly sloping sidewalk. The work also proceeds quite slowly partly because the problems are messy and expensive to fix.
As with other major programs in this city, it behooves us to pay attention. We can’t just sit back and assume that the current plans will do the trick. We have to keep up the pressure on our city leaders.
To further that aim, Radcliff quickly came to terms with that less than glorious image of himself on the front page of our Saturday California section. In fact, he spent a lot of last weekend defending its place there.
As he wrote on Twitter, “I’m glad people are seeing this. I wasn’t injured, but others might be if we don’t collectively take these concerns seriously. As Brian’s camera went click click click, I was more relieved than embarrassed. Maybe this can do some good.”
When the response to the photo prompted me to ask people on social media to send me their own photos of L.A.’s worst sidewalks, Radcliff went even further and told his followers on Twitter, “I never thought I’d be so grateful to have fallen over in very public view.”
There are so many reasons why our sidewalks need to be fixed. Anyone, of course, can fall and get injured in the bad stretches. Those injuries can be terrible. So is the amount the city is paying out for them.
I recently saw a list of three dozen approved city settlements of more than $100,000 apiece in “trip and fall” sidewalk cases since January 2017 — including one for up to $3 million that my colleague Emily Alpert Reyes wrote about last year.
Here’s what I learned, by the way, about Safe Sidewalks L.A., the city’s sidewalk repair program, from Julie Sauter, the deputy city engineer who manages it.
Ramping it up took a little time. There had been so little focus on the city’s sidewalks for so long that no one had any real sense of the extent of the problems. So mapping was required, as was figuring out how to prioritize the requests for repairs that came in to meet the requirements of the settlement.
Requests from those with “mobility disabilities” who report such barriers to their passage as broken sidewalks or broken or missing curb cuts and ramps get the highest priority. But there already was that backlog. The city has received about 2,800 of these “access requests,” though some predate the program — and 2,500 are pending. The requests can be made online or by calling the city’s 311 number, or on the MyLA311 app.
Sixty to 90 new access requests come in each month, and the city completes about 10 of them monthly. At first, crews would get a request and try to fix all the problems on whichever block it was on.
Now they’re taking a narrower approach, to cover more requests from all over the city each year. If you don’t have a disability and you want a damaged sidewalk fixed in front of a residential property you own, you can still put in a request. But it will be in the city’s lowest-priority category.
So if you have the means and prefer not to wait for years and years, you might well want to take advantage of the popular cost-sharing rebate program, which opened for requests again Tuesday, in which the city pays a share of the tab for the repair work. This year, as last year, the rebate program has $1 million in funding, and Sauter thinks that will be enough to cover 190 to 200 rebates.
When I asked Sauter about the photo of Radcliff falling, she said it was “really heartbreaking.” Her office planned to check whether a repair request had been put in for that spot. If not, Radcliff should put one in to get it in the queue, she said. People with disabilities that affect their mobility can put in requests for spots near where they work, where they live, where they travel, she said.
In the time I spent with Radcliff last week, he made me think in many new ways about such travel in a wheelchair and about disability.
Take the very language people use to describe it. Many guidelines suggest a people-first approach, to give the person, not the disability, top billing. In this school of thought, you speak of a person with a disability.
Another school of thought, however, is to be more direct and identity-first and to say someone is a disabled person. Those, like Radcliff, who prefer this approach say being a person is a given and being disabled is an integral part of who they are. Perhaps more importantly, they make the point that it is others, not themselves, who shape a world that turns disabilities into deficits by not being fully and equally accessible to all.
This weekend in an essay on Facebook, Radcliff eloquently explained this in a way that brings us back directly to that jarring photo of him.
“Believe me, this photo is not about one tree root or one wheelchair (someone tweeted I should get a better wheelchair — my wheelchair is durable and great) or one pasty-faced subject. This is bigger than that. It’s about what and who we value,” Radcliff wrote.
“We need better sidewalks, because this is systemic, not personal. You will all be disabled someday — through age, accident, or illness — and you will then discover how many environments no longer have you in mind. Environment, not disability, is what becomes disabling.”
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