Evanston says Main Street will become more accessible. Advocates say, ‘This is the first baby step.’


Cole Reynolds/The Daily Northwestern

Park School. The City of Evanston is improving the ADA compliance of sidewalks around Park, which serves students with special needs.

Cole Reynolds, Reporter

Nura Aly’s wheelchair sometimes gets stuck in sidewalk cracks on Main Street. The sudden stop catapults her out of the chair, and she lands face-first on the ground.

“That’s happened so many times in my life that I’m used to it,” she said. “I’ve figured out how to do it safely.” 

But that means she spends most of her time looking at the ground, watching for cracks instead of enjoying her surroundings.

Uneven sidewalks like these run up and down Main Street. As Evanston tries to calm traffic through its Main Street Improvement Project, it’s also redoing the sidewalks in compliance with city accessibility standards. But some staff at the local Park School, a public therapeutic day program where 40% of the student body uses a wheelchair, questioned if compliance is enough.

“They are unintentionally making this like a token,” said Aly, who works at the school as a paraprofessional. “Kind of like, ‘Hey, we’ve done it. Let’s celebrate,’ when this is the first baby step.”

Broken sidewalks, lost opportunities

A brick is depressed on a sidewalk coated in snow.
Sidewalks on Main Street. Old paved sidewalks can become uneven, a potential safety hazard for some people with disabilities. (Cole Reynolds/The Daily Northwestern)

Some of the most crucial learning happens outside of the classroom at schools like Park, according to Ren Heckathorne, a teacher at Park.

Heckathorne often takes students to a local coffee shop to practice communication skills. They said real-life experiences, like ordering food, can’t be replicated inside the school.

Getting students out into the community also has less tangible, but perhaps more important, benefits, Heckathorne said. Being able to access a coffee shop or a laundromat lets students — and everyone around them — know they are valued members of the community.

But the sidewalks can make it hard to do this, multiple staff at the school said. Some students require larger wheelchairs that don’t fit on narrower sidewalks or are prone to tipping over during bumpy patches. 

Because of this, staff said, not all students can attend the outdoor excursions.

“It’s sad that the main obstacle to all of that is the sidewalks,” Heckathorne said. “It’s just a truly unfair and inexcusable reason not to be able to access the community.” 

Compliant doesn’t mean accessible

When the City last developed Main Street, it opted to install sidewalks paved with individual stones, according to Chris Venatta, a senior project manager on the Main Street Improvement Project. But those sidewalks were difficult to fully repair when they deteriorated, Venatta said.

As the years went by, those sidewalks fell into further disrepair and out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Venatta said.

The project, which is expected to start construction this spring, will replace the bumpy sidewalks with wider, smoother ones. While the project primarily aims to calm traffic on the street with Evanston’s fourth-most number of crashes, those improvements will also make the corridor ADA-compliant, Venatta said.

“We’re doing a disservice to some of our vulnerable populations by leaving sidewalks that are not navigable by people with disabilities or people that are elderly,” Venatta said. 

But to Aly, “ADA compliance” doesn’t necessarily equal accessibility. She says, to her, making infrastructure ADA-compliant means doing the minimum required effort.

When Aly was a student at DePaul University, she said she had to enter the school through a loading dock — which was technically ADA-compliant. But the ramp was too steep for her, she said, and she injured her shoulders trying to navigate the entrance. 

At Park, she’s seen a similar lack of accessibility. Multiple staff members said students’ wheelchairs are prone to tipping over on access ramps at the school, which Evanston/Skokie School District 65 has ensured are ADA compliant. 

“You have to really hold on to a wheelchair if you’re gonna take (students) down most classroom ramps,” Aly said. 

‘Nothing about us without us’

The disability advocacy community often uses the phrase, “Nothing about us without us.” 

The motto is supposed to highlight the need for disabled voices to be integrated into the planning process of projects affecting people with disabilities.

But Aly said she was concerned she hadn’t heard about the Main Street Improvement Project until after it was planned and approved. And she says its focus on ADA compliance, however well-intentioned, further ignores voices like her own. 

Venatta acknowledged while the Park School added urgency to the upgrades, its presence didn’t push the City to consider any improvements beyond its standard ADA compliance measures.

Those measures, he said, are the best possible guidelines for accessibility. He also said two members of the Park School staff, who were included on a 15-person advisory committee for the project, raised no unresolved issues.

One of those members was Heckathorne. They said while they had a positive experience on the committee, neither they nor the other Park School representative has a physical disability. The city could be more intentional about including disabled voices in the planning process, Heckathorne said.

They urged Evanston to look beyond ADA compliance in the future, particularly around spaces for disabled people.

“Take that bare minimum and really push past it,” Heckathorne said. “I think it sends a strong message about the ways that (disabled) identities are being valued.”

While Aly said she’s happy to have better sidewalks, she also said the city needs to involve the disability community when planning capital improvements. She encouraged the city to create an office run by disabled people to consult on such projects, much like the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in Chicago.

Until that happens, Aly said she’s stuck with a realization many in the disability community have had.

“As a person with a disability, you learn to decide which things you’re going to fight,” she said. “There’s always things that can be better. But I have to choose which battles to fight because I don’t want to live my life angry.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charcole27

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