Disability rights advocates in Pittsburgh say Richard Meritzer is irreplaceable.
The city’s longtime Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, Meritzer, 65, died of cancer last month. His death leaves the post vacant for the first time in more than a decade.
Meritzer, in his Feb. 13 obituary, was lauded as a “champion” for residents with disabilities and for city compliance with the ADA, the landmark federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and which established standards for accessibility in housing and new construction.
But while Meritzer may be irreplaceable, advocates say his post must be filled.
This as the city navigates a construction boom that’s seen $4.6 billion in new construction completed since 2008 in the Greater Downtown area alone and which likely has much more in store. (ADA requirements apply at facilities belonging to state and local governments; stores, shops, restaurants and bars; transportation facilities, public housing and more.)
Advocates say Pittsburgh’s building boom has highlighted, sometimes in stark relief, the need for an ADA coordinator with a presence inside City Hall and a commitment to local compliance with the law. They also say the concept of accessibility itself is evolving beyond the confines of the federal anti-discrimination statute, meaning there are issues city officials and city residents are only now beginning to understand and only now beginning to confront.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 following a successful and sustained push by members of a growing national disability rights movement.
The law requires state and local entities with over 50 employees to designate an ADA coordinator to oversee and coordinate compliance. In the private and voluntary sectors, corporations, nonprofits and more have found an ADA coordinator to be essential to meeting ADA compliance obligations.
In cities like Pittsburgh, the role — part ombudsman, part diplomat, part auditor — involves coordination of municipal efforts to comply with the law and also investigation of any complaints that the city has failed to do so.
The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division says the coordinator also serves as “the point of contact for individuals with disabilities to request auxiliary aids and services, policy modifications and other accommodations.”
Per the city’s website, Pittsburgh’s ADA coordinator assists architects, developers, business owners, landlords and others in designing or redesigning their facilities “so that they are usable by all persons, including those with disabilities.”
It’s a varied role and one often performed in concert with other duties. Without it, advocates fear a historically overlooked population would remain just that. With it, they say, there’s a chance of being seen and heard.
Alisa Grishman, an activist who's been fighting to make Pittsburgh more accessible for people with disabilities since 2014, is pictured in her home. “People don’t want to see disability because it reminds them of their own mortality,” she says.MICHAEL SANTIAGO / HUFFPOST AND THE INCLINE
‘As passionate and savvy’
Mayor Bill Peduto’s office said Meritzer’s former position will be posted and filled within an estimated “three to four months.”
Alisa Grishman, a disability rights advocate, founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh and a Who’s Nexter, is encouraged by the time frame.
“Three to four months is reasonable, and it makes me happy because it means they’re trying to find a good person as opposed to just filling it ASAP with whoever applies first,” Grishman explained.
As of Thursday, the opening had yet to be listed on the city’s “career center” webpage. Once it is, applications will be reviewed by administrators at the Department of City Planning, which encompasses the ADA coordinator role.
Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty said the role will remain within the department of planning and continue to work closely with the mayor’s office and other city departments.
“It does sound like they’re taking it seriously,” Grishman said of the city and the vacancy.
“We want to see someone as passionate and savvy as Richard was,” Grishman added of potential candidates for the role. “We need a Richard clone.”
Second generation ADA
While there is a moral argument to be made for cities like Pittsburgh ensuring hurdles to access are anticipated and, when necessary, removed, there may also be a financial one. And it may bolster arguments for why ADA coordinators are not only important but crucial in civic attempts to address infrastructure needs and launch projects with public money.
“The city set up protected bike lanes in Oakland without first consulting the ADA coordinator and had to go back and get rid of a whole bunch of bollards because they illegally blocked access to certain things,” Grishman recalled.
Grishman — who uses a wheelchair and a walker — said the ADA coordinator can serve as a safeguard against not only inaccessibility but also government waste.
Paul O’Hanlon, a former attorney with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, added, “What happens when accessibility is dealt with as an afterthought is it’s usually poorly done and expensive.”
Then there’s the issue of Pittsburgh’s building boom, the pace of which doesn’t always lend itself to forethought on the part of developers who are driven by investors, or just simple economics, to get the work done as quickly as possible.
“I’m a lifelong Pittsburgher,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s incredible how fast things are changing now compared to the old days, and there’s a lot of good in that. But bad stuff can happen before you even know about it. The faster we change, the more likely it will be done without thought in terms of accessibility.”
At the same time, new consideration is being given to what access means now, 30 years after the ADA became law and helped address some of the most fundamental issues around this topic.
“I think we’re kind of reaching the sort of second generation of accessibility problems,” O’Hanlon explained. “And to some extent what we’ve handled, by and large, are the gross issues — just basic issues of accessibility like, for example, ‘Is there a ramp?’ But elevators and ramps don’t necessarily mean people with disabilities are included, and some of the more difficult things we’re only beginning to confront.”
And even though advocates are keenly aware of the ADA’s shortcomings, its constraints and its arguably threatened status, it remains seminal and some hope an all-important stepping stone to even greater protections.
Disability rights advocates estimate that scores of Pittsburgh establishments remain inaccessible to people with limited mobility, “restricting their job prospects, day-to-day routines and community involvement,” the Post-Gazette reported in 2018.
And as new buildings are born and old ones continue to age, Grishman said the ADA coordinator’s role becomes even more relevant.
“The building I live in now was built in 2015 and there are two steps to get in,” Grishman said. “In my contract, I can build a ramp, but there should have been a ramp to begin with. This ground-level unit could have been compliant from the beginning.”
Nine percent of county residents under the age of 65 reported having a disability between 2013 and 2017. Census data show roughly 10 percent of Pittsburgh residents under 65 reported having a disability in that same time. (The ADA covers both physical and mental disabilities.)
In Meritzer’s PG obituary, Peduto said, “He will be greatly missed by me and other city employees, and by communities he worked so closely with over the decades.”
Grishman, who considered Meritzer a close personal friend, agreed and stressed his irreplaceability. But, she said, it behooves the city to try.