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July 28, 2015
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Advances and challenges in accessibility

What makes for a "livable community?" GO TO 2040, the comprehensive regional plan for northeastern Illinois, envisions a region with a dynamic economy, abundant open spaces, a strong transportation network, and attractive housing options. Yet that vision is only livable if it is inclusive and accessible. Therefore, CMAP helps municipalities in the seven-county region plan for accessibility in land use, housing, and transportation.  In celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA) 25th Anniversary, CMAP is partnering with ADA25 Chicago to highlight planning policies, projects and programs that are improving accessibility in the Chicago region. This is the first in a series of posts on aspects of accessibility. 

Twenty-five years ago, an accessible sidewalk was one with a curb low enough to jump (assuming you knew how to jump in your wheelchair). Individuals with disabilities lacked a right to access public and private programs and services and, as a result, were excluded from American society. But on July 26, 1990, the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act marked a critical step forward in changing the physical, social, and economic landscape of the country. Today, curb ramps are replacing curb jumping, and though unemployment among people with disabilities remains extraordinarily high, in the City of Chicago people with disabilities have earned top leadership positions and are helping to make the urban environment universally accessible.

To talk about this improvement, Deputy Commissioner Joe Russo of the Chicago Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) visited the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) during the July 13-17 session of its Future Leaders in Planning (FLIP) program. Forty-five high school students from across the northeastern Illinois region had the chance to talk with Joe about his experience living with a disability and working to advance accessibility in Washington, D.C. through the Department of Justice and in Chicago with MOPD.

From thinking about how to define a disability, details on the structure of the ADA, and how the law works in practice at the federal and local level, Joe helped the FLIP participants understand how the law is remaking the world around us. He offered the students insight into how the ADA in conjunction with municipal regulation is helping architects, developers, and builders refashion the built environment and discussed the challenges of creating and implementing policies that allow all citizens with disabilities the opportunity to access not just public buildings and services but also many private buildings and services.

Just as public infrastructure like libraries and sidewalks must be accessible, restaurants and doctors' offices must also be able to accommodate people with disabilities. Providing this accommodation could require physical structural changes, such as widening a doorway so that a wheelchair may pass through, or could mean changes to service delivery, such as retaining a sign-language interpreter during a doctor's visit or reading a menu out loud to a person who is blind.

Over the course of his remarks, Joe highlighted the enormous impact the ADA has had on creating a built environment that is now more universally accessible, but he also reinforced how many obstacles remain. Accessibility is a continually moving target that will likely demand the attention and creative problem-solving skills of future planners and policy-makers.

Future Leaders in Planning (FLIP)

FLIP is a youth leadership development program that offers students the opportunity to take part in planning a better future for our region. Learn more about the program at http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/about/involvement/flip.

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