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Two Americas: Accessibility in Billings through the eyes of the disabled

Posted at 11:18 AM, Dec 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-17 13:18:05-05

BILLINGS – Under Skypoint in downtown Billings, Katelyn Baker uses her motorized wheelchair to maneuver the sidewalks.

But the truth is, it's not always easy.

“People don’t realize I have the same rights as a pedestrian,” she said.

And she’s right. People don’t realize that.

Often, she sees it with an obstruction on a sidewalk, a door that doesn’t have a button to open automatically, and when she’s trying to get across an intersection in Billings Heights, where she lives.

Baker lives with mild cerebral palsy.

Her biggest complaint is that many of the timed signals at crosswalks aren’t long enough, which leaves her to worry if the approaching car will give her the room she needs to get across safely.

Her perspective is shared by 11 percent of the population. That’s how many disabled people live in the city of Billings, according to Emily Shuman with the Rocky Mountain ADA Center.

“We really just help people understand what their responsibilities are under the ADA,” said Shuman.

Also strolling under Skypoint, Shuman uses an eagle eye along with a tape measure and a level to show what sort of accessibility problems there are in the intersection.

While she says the city of Billings does a lot of things very well, she adds from what she can tell, there are areas to be addressed.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was formed roughly 30 years ago, and it means local and state governments are expected to adhere to accessibility and design standards within its rule. Shuman’s mission is to help businesses, property owners and other entities learn about accommodation to better the surroundings in their control for the disabled.

But beyond that, she’s passionate about what she does.

It doesn’t take her long to look around at the intersection and see blockage issues in a walkway or glaring compliance issues.

“These signs are supposed to be mounted 60 inches above the ground,” Shuman said, referring to a blue sign marked for accessible parking.

“I don't need a measuring tape to tell you that this is lower than 60 inches, right, and that's because if you're driving, you need to be able to see that this is an accessible space,” she added.

Shuman used her measuring tape to see that the sign was only about 20 inches above the ground.

Along with that, next to the sign in the access aisle, a trash can is blocking access to the sidewalk for anyone in a wheelchair.

“So that's where they would get out and they'd have to roll into the access aisle but then there's obstruction right in front of where they would be,” she said.

Along with that, cracks in the cobblestone could be deemed too wide, potentially injuring someone using a cane or someone with a wheelchair.

And perhaps the biggest issue is a temporary construction fence. The fence is leaving little room for Baker’s wheelchair to get through.

Shuman believes it was likely an oversight on the owners of the building under construction, but that’s precisely her point – it’s the things we don’t seem to think about that can cause the biggest challenges for those who live among us impaired.

“We're definitely catching up,” said Public Works Director Debi Meling.

Meling says the city of Billings spends roughly $400,000 a year on improvements to accessibility on sidewalks and intersections.

But even though ADA is a federal law, the city doesn’t get federal dollars to achieve its goal of correcting past construction mistakes.

Meling says instead, that money is paid for through the local budget with revenue generated from the gas tax.

But she says, Public Works is proactive.

“We get calls, we immediately go out and take care of that area,” she said. “24th (Street West) was one we did a couple of years ago. We had someone on 24th it had a sidewalk, but every drive approach tipped into the street and it was just horrible that it was not a very accessible sidewalk. And so, we had someone that lived there and said that's the only way they got around and so we went and rebuilt those this last year.”

Every year, the city has a mission to make intersections accessible, and every year they get roughly ten of them done.

On tap for next year? Retrofitting every traffic signal with audible tones for the deaf and blind, she said.

“I actually think Billings is in pretty good shape. That being said, there are 800 miles of roads and we're not anywhere close to actually getting them all yet.”

And Shuman with the Rocky Mountain ADA doesn’t necessarily disagree.

While it was easy for her to see accessibility issues within a typical intersection, she’s trained to do so. The problem is for many of us, it’s not even a thought.

She hopes businesses will reach out to an ADA compliance official within their city to act and residents should pay attention to the little things, like snow removal.

Because it could make all the difference to someone like Katelyn Baker.