Editor’s Note: This story is a collaboration between The Incline and HuffPost.
In cities across America, people with disabilities face uneven access to buildings, transportation and leisure activities. Change isn’t coming fast enough, and activists worry that lawmakers are in the process of watering down protections for people with disabilities.
Here in Pittsburgh, where accessibility is mediocre at best, local advocate Alisa Grishman can attest to the city’s problems. Grishman, who uses a wheelchair and a walker, pushes for improvements to the city’s sidewalks and local businesses — and she urges local politicians not to get complacent about the status quo.
“The city has not been changing at an appreciable rate,” said Grishman of Uptown.
“One of the things I’ve said countless times is the longer you live the more likely it is that you’ll become disabled at some point. Everyone from homeless veterans to Donald Trump himself, anyone can become disabled at any point. And if we just thought in those terms, I wouldn’t have to do this work.”
Last year, a WalletHub analysis of the best and worst cities for people with disabilities ranked Pittsburgh 53rd out of the country’s 150 most populous cities. The highest-scoring cities scored lower than 62 out of 100 total points, while Pittsburgh notched 51.98 points.
This as the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark piece of legislation meant to outlaw discrimination based on ability, remains sparsely enforced, inconsistently applied and the target of political revisions advocates say would lessen the law’s impact if successful.
Grishman, 35, is the founder of local advocacy group Access Mob and works around the ADA’s enforcement shortcomings by getting Pittsburgh business owners to voluntarily make ADA-compliant changes. She does this by convincing them that accessibility is better for their bottom line.
She also wants to make accessibility issues more prominent, better understood and more of a political necessity.
And while she tends to favor subtler methods of advocacy at home, she isn’t afraid to make noise when necessary. She’s been arrested five times at protests as a member of ADAPT, a national disability rights organization.
“I’m a lover and a fighter,” she said.
We spoke to Grishman about her work, the state of disability rights and how Pittsburgh is a microcosm for much larger issues around access. Excerpts from our conversation are below and have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How is Pittsburgh doing in terms of accessibility?
A: Some parts of Pittsburgh are good, some parts are not. It is hard with a wheelchair, compared to other cities, because Pittsburgh is so hilly. At least I have a motorized wheelchair. I know a few people with manual wheelchairs who switch to motorized in the winter, especially, because the hills are so difficult.
In this city, sidewalks are the property of the homeowner, and they’re responsible for repairs. We have a lot of problems because reporting it is a hassle, and getting people to come out and fix it is a hassle. Some property owners can’t afford to fix it. I don’t report things in front of houses where it looks like the owners couldn’t afford the repairs. And I would happily pay more in property taxes to have the city own the sidewalks. I think that would be tremendous in terms of getting repairs and shoveling done. In my parents’ town in New Jersey, part of their taxes goes to the city-owned sidewalks. When it comes time for a sidewalk to be repaired, you just contact city, and they fix it. On the other hand, Pittsburgh has a really robust paratransit system.
Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty told The Incline of the city’s sidewalk repair system and related policies, “I’m not sure what hassles are being referred to here, but the city has a well-known and operated Claims Division in its Law Department, which commonly receives requests for claims regarding damages to properties and sidewalks.”
Q: What do you want to see fixed, addressed or changed to make the city more accessible?
A: I’m a member-elect of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, which was created to be the first group the city reaches out to for any project to ensure standards are met. I cannot list a single time the city came to us first, instead of apologizing to us later for having messed things up. They spent all this money to put in protected bike lanes, only to have to rip some out and repair the ground because it turned out they were blocking paratransit. Had they come to us in the first place and said — “Here’s this plan, does it work?” — we could have said no and saved them the money.
McNulty said of the cost associated with similar projects, “The Department of Mobility and Infrastructure uses an adaptive planning model on low-cost initiatives such as bike lanes. As they are only using paint and bollards they try out the lanes and adjust them as necessary, such as was the case on Bigelow Boulevard last year, which is an area that serves many people and students with disabilities.”
Q: What is Access Mob dedicated to?
A: Access Mob seeks to encourage businesses to change with education and economic incentives. If you convince a business why they need to make changes, they’ll do it wholeheartedly, and they’ll welcome you instead of just accommodating you.
The ADA is a very complaint-driven law. If you want to change something you have to sue, and a) that gets exhausting for people who have to do the suing, and b) it makes you a bit of a pariah with all the businesses you want to change.
The tagline I always give is, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” I like sitting down with businesses to say, “Hey, could you make this change?” If they balk or refuse, what I love to do is have something called an “unprotest,” where we have people outside saying, “We want to spend our money here.” Who’s going to be upset with that? And if they keep fighting changes, that’s when we get more drastic and send people over for a proper protest.
Access Mob has a core membership of around 25 people. If I just announced there’s a thing happening, around 40 people will show up.
There are some businesses that just don’t know the law or what they can do or should be doing. The owner of Sushi Fuku in Oakland once said, “My place is accessible, I put in a whole new bathroom.” He was getting very upset over still being called out for not being accessible. One day he was at a meeting with another local activist, D.J. Stemmler, who explained, “I can’t get into your restaurant to buy anything,” and the owner said, “We’ll just pick you up.” D.J. said, “My wheelchair alone weighs 300 pounds and you’ll either hurt yourself or myself or your employees.” The owner looked like he’d never thought of that before.
I’ve met with about a dozen businesses, and maybe six or seven have made some sort of change, including small changes like the addition of braille or online menus.
Q: What has your work here focused on lately?
A: I go to a lot of City Council hearings. A lot of things have needed fighting about, and I’ve been there.
The Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections is currently updating their building codes in general for the first time since the early 1980s, and the worst thing is that there are zero mentions of the ADA in the new version of the codes, despite the fact the ADA passed in the 1990s. The head of PLI, they have been fighting all of our efforts to get accessibility into the codes.
For the first public hearing on this we had about 15 people in wheelchairs, plus other disability advocates in attendance. We’re working now on getting the state involved because we’re trying to get the state to change some of its universal construction codes.
In response, McNulty said the city wants to work with advocates to change laws at the state level. “The city obviously supports ADA standards in building codes,” McNulty said, but added, “… cities are barred by federal law from enforcing the ADA in their own codes.” (Advocates like Grishman disagree with this legal interpretation.)
Q: What’s the response like when you challenge elected officials or government entities?
A: Some officials roll their eyes when they see me show up at a meeting. I’ve made a couple of them cry.
Q: How has the city changed since you’ve been doing that work?
A: We have a lot of advocates placed in positions of power now. There’s getting to be more and more people with disabilities who have placed themselves in parts of the government or who are doing advocacy work, and gradually this is becoming normalized.
Q: What are the barriers to the work you’re doing?
A: So far, Access Mob has been entirely funded out of my own pocket.
When it comes to disability advocacy and self advocacy, a lot of people, including me, find it hard to do the actual work because they’re often in too much pain and too tired to go to advocacy events.
So it’s money, it’s health and just getting people on board with our vision.
Q: Is society overall moving in a more inclusive direction?
A: It comes and goes, ebbs and flows. There’s been a boom in TV’s depictions of disabled characters, with shows like “The Good Doctor,” “Speechless” and “Glee.” There is a growing consciousness, but at the same time when you look at what’s going on in the government and the [proposed] cuts in Medicaid and Medicare, all these government decisions where either we’re an afterthought or deliberately excluded, as long as that keeps happening, I think our whole society suffers.
Q: Are you ever frustrated?
A: All the time. I spoke at the Women’s March in Pittsburgh this year about getting out the vote and how so many polling locations are labeled “accessible” but aren’t. A lot of people don’t understand what accessibility really is. I had a fight with the judge of elections, the head of my polling location, and they said, “Just lift your walker up,” and I said, “No, the step is too high for me, get the goshdarn ramp.”
It’s been an uphill battle. But I keep coming. They hate me for that but I don’t care. I don’t give up easily.
Q: When is your work done?
A: My death bed, probably. To me, a perfect world is a world where I am not disabled, and by that I mean, my disability is not that something’s wrong with me, it’s that the world has not adapted to me.
Eyeglasses are a disability accommodation. People with some form of vision impairment, they wear glasses and they can see and drive, that’s a disability accommodation, but we don’t think of it as such because it’s been so normalized in our culture.
I would love a world where I’m not needed and where I can sit and knit all day — actually, I do that anyway, but you know what I mean.
The best thing would be a world where I’m welcomed and not just accommodated.