Neon green protest sign with handwritten letters that read "Disability Rights = Civil Rights"

Transit and Sidewalks Need Improvement for Disabled Washingtonians, Report Says

by Ashley Archibald

Micah L. moved to Seattle because, he said, it was one of the most accessible cities for blind people. He attended the University of Washington and received his bachelor’s degree this year in English and creative writing and moved to Lynnwood on Aug. 23. It’s a lot cheaper, he said over Zoom, but commuting is much more difficult.

“That’s the hard trade off we have to make as people with disabilities,” Micah said. “How much accessibility do we want, and can we actually afford that?”

Experiences like Micah’s populate a new report from the Disability Mobility Initiative, a project of Disability Rights Washington that highlights the needs of disabled Washingtonians who don’t drive.

The project represents 10 months of research consisting of interviews with more than 130 disabled people throughout the state who rely on public transportation and infrastructure to move through their daily lives.

Authors distilled these interviews into 15 sections covering various barriers that non-drivers with disabilities face. Each section begins with individuals’ stories followed by an analysis of the issues and recommendations to planners and elected officials.

The report acts as a guidebook of sorts derived from the stories of real people who struggle with neglected or nonexistent sidewalks, infrequent bus service, inaccessible signage, and other barriers every day.

It also highlights the human cost of not bringing those barriers down.

“If you’re inclined to skim the paper before you dig in in detail, start with the stories, because everything starts from the stories,” said Kimberly Kinchen, a communications consultant who worked on the report.

Stories like Jim’s — he’s a powerchair user who lives in Rainier Valley. He has difficulty with the sidewalks and plans his own routes to bypass those in worst repair. Some areas have low curbs that don’t meet seamlessly with the bus’s wheelchair ramp, making it difficult to board. If he gets on the bus, there’s limited space for wheelchairs — he often finds himself competing with strollers and shopping carts.

“This is a design issue that affects mobility-device users, people with strollers or shopping carts and those with service animals and it needs to be addressed now,” Jim says in the report.

Others in the report spoke of the need for more connections between towns — and more bus service overall, especially in rural areas. One man, Greg, used to live in Gray’s River. He spent $200 on cab fare once because he missed the last bus going back to his town.

Monetary costs like this one can also pile on top of others that are more difficult to quantify: Missed medical appointments. Lost job opportunities. The stress of difficult routes, multiple transfers, and lost time. The isolation and attendant impacts on mental health.

Shane Cody Fairweather is a board member with People First of Washington (PF), an advocacy and education organization for disabled people. He lives in a rural community in Stevens County, Washington with one bus that goes in and out of town toward Spokane. Fairweather wants more transit, including buses and a light rail line that could take people to King County.

Without that kind of long-distance transit, it’s hard to get out to activities like PF events or the Special Olympics, Fairweather said.

“We get discouraged and isolated and depression sets in,” Fairweather said.

While the report comes with many detailed recommendations, there are two main takeaways, said Anna Zivarts, director of the Disability Mobility Initiative.

First, communities need to be connected by transit and by infrastructure to help people walk and roll. According to the City of Seattle, for instance, roughly a quarter of city blocks lack sidewalks, in part because of the annexation of other communities during the 20th century that had different sidewalk standards. Increasing the number of sidewalks has been slow going. “There are so many gaps that create so many barriers for those of us who can’t drive, and it’s time to start to repair those gaps and to build the connections so we really can be active participants in our communities the way we want to be,” Zivarts said.

She called on elected leaders and policymakers to fund transit and build sidewalks, improvements that will help everyone who uses the system. According to State licensing data, roughly a quarter of Washingtonians do not hold a driver’s license.

Second, governments should also hire and consult disabled people who don’t drive and other nondrivers during planning processes, she said.

“It’s not enough to have accessibility committees that are sidelined, that are unpaid, that don’t have a clear process for how the recommendations that come out of those committees gets incorporated. We really need to make sure that nondrivers [and] that disabled folks can be part of the process,” Zivarts said.

Locally, King County Metro says that they’ve consulted with the Mobility Equity Cabinet (an adaptation and continuation of the Open Space Equity Cabinet), of which Zivarts is a member, to create Metro policies that include the experiences of disabled people. They also seek to include disabled people in “mobility boards” — groups that help improve transit in specific project areas.

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

📸 Featured image is attributed to The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights via Flickr. Used here under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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