As a counselor at AMITA Health Center for Mental Health, Nicole Yarmolkevich dedicates her day to supporting others. So when it’s time to head home, she craves a walk to clear her head. “It’d be nice to have that time just for myself,” says Nicole, who lives in the northern suburbs, less than 15 minutes from her workplace.
But walking to work no longer feels like an option. There have simply been too many close calls in crossing Dundee, the busy six-lane street that stands between Nicole’s home and office. Dundee Road connects a steady flow of fast-moving cars and trucks to the Route 53 highway just blocks away. Pedestrians have fewer than 20 seconds to cross, and the street does not have audio signals.
Although Nicole and her guide dog, Pat, move quickly, the crossing has never felt safe. “Even with a very fast dog, I just barely make it before cars start moving,” says Nicole, who is legally blind. “There have been multiple times where I have almost been hit, and people have witnessed it.”
Nicole’s experience is not unique. Large, high-capacity streets, which are difficult and in some cases dangerous for people with disabilities to cross, exist in many communities.
Nicole, 28, has tried to address some of these barriers in the built environment. While earning her master’s degree at Illinois State University, Nicole helped advocate for audio signals at a busy campus street. It was years — long after Nicole had graduated — before the signals were installed.
“For people with disabilities — not just the visually impaired — it can feel like we’re an afterthought,” she says. “It’s often not until after we bring up a problem that people think of us. I wish places would be more proactive and incorporate these things into society before it becomes an issue.”
Nicole easily navigates many forms of transportation, from Metra trips to downtown Chicago to cross-country plane rides, and for the most part, she finds them accessible. So it is frustrating that her commute to the office — a walking distance of 0.4 miles — has become her biggest transit challenge.
The Pace bus, while technically an option, would mean a minimum of 45 minutes due to an indirect route. And buses present other obstacles beyond commute time. “The biggest thing is when the bus stops aren’t announced,” Nicole says. “Now I always ask in advance to make sure the stops will be announced, and most drivers are really good about it. But there have been times where they haven’t, and it’s a scary feeling not knowing where you are exactly.”
For now, Nicole asks a family member for a ride on the three days a week she works from the office. In a pinch, she orders an Uber or Lyft, hoping that the driver will accept her guide dog. Although legally required, it isn’t always followed. “Drivers will sometimes cancel rides. They will slow down and see me and my dog, and then drive away,” she says.
Many of Nicole’s clients are also visually impaired, and the stress of dealing with transportation and other accessibility issues is a topic that often comes up, particularly for those who don’t have family support. “It’s just unfortunate how many times we have these conversations,” she says.
But the benefits of making streets like Dundee safer — and improving the transportation system in general — reach beyond any one resident. “It’s not just for me,” Nicole says. “Curb cuts, audible signals, and longer cross times — those are things that don’t just help people who have disabilities. They are going to help everybody.”
To learn how to develop an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) transition plan for your community, visit the Federal Highway Administration’s webpage or the ADA Title II Action Guide for State and Local Governments.