Disabled and elderly face growing challenges throughout Washington County
The American with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disability. Upon its creation, it piggybacked off the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which affords American citizens protection against discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin and, later, sexual orientation. In addition, the ADA also requires employers to provide employees with disabilities reasonable accommodations, in addition to imposing accessibility requirements on public accommodations.
However, while the law requires a minimum standard in an effort to protect the disabled, the question remains not whether we're trying as a society, but rather whether we're trying hard enough in an effort to care for the people who need it most?
Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax believes the City Council and city staff are doing their part, but he also said it's not enough to do the bare minimum of what's required.
"When it comes to the ADA, we're making sure that we're not just merely in line with the letter of the law, but also the spirit of it," Truax said.
Truax cited recent sidewalk projects on both Pacific and 19th Avenues as efforts to meet ADA requirements. He also pointed to a prospective project at the intersection of Main Street and 21st Avenue, which is designed to better accommodate pedestrian traffic, and particularly those with a disability.
"I know it's crucial to all members of the City Council," Truax said. "And it's part of the bigger conversation about diversity, equity and lifestyle choices. We aim to be as inclusive as possible. We want this town to be as welcoming as possible, to everybody."
It's not always easy, however, and Beaverton's Kim Pettit knows that firsthand.
Pettit and neighbors Lori Stewart, Linda Briggs and David Loucks say their disability needs aren't being met, and they have taken their complaint to the city government.
All three live at the Barcelona at Beaverton apartments, an affordable housing complex located on Lombard Avenue in downtown Beaverton. The building offers 47 low-income units — eight of which are fully accessible for people with disabilities — with 20 private parking spots, four of which are designated for disability parking.
Pettit, Stewart, Briggs and Loucks, all of whom require wheelchairs, say their problem stems from the lack of parking proximity to their apartments. They've pleaded their case to the complex itself, Beaverton City Hall and even local legislators in an effort to secure parking on the street behind their apartments, which all border Second Street.
Pettit's complaint filed with the city was denied. City officials say there's been no breach of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act nor the ADA.
The city did install a disabled parking spot on Second Street in an effort to help, but the four tenants say that does little to remedy their parking problem.
With the exception of the newly installed spot on Second Street, the remaining disabled parking spots are located at the far side of the lot, too far for the compromised tenants. All four say the trip is too far to manage on a regular basis.
"We fall sometimes trying to get around, and other times have to sit in our cars for hours sometimes waiting for spaces to be reopened, just so we can come back," Kim Pettit said. "We come around that corner and it's so stressful. 'Is our space there? Oh my gosh, I can't believe it's there.' Or, 'Oh my God, someone's parked in our space.' It's tough."
Loucks, a retired Navy veteran with severe diabetes, went a step further, saying he genuinely fears the potential ramifications of parking at a distance.
"I'm scared to leave my spot to go do something," Loucks said. "You know, whether it's going to Home Depot, the grocery store, or whatever the case may be, because if I lose my spot, I'm in real trouble."
Matt Serres, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Oregon, said it shouldn't just be about what the law requires, but also about what can be done through innovative means.
"The law provides a foundation for what is required in terms of accessible parking in the public right of way, but cities should seek out innovative solutions that go beyond the minimum requirements in order to provide more accessible parking to citizens with disabilities," Serres said.
Beaverton Mayor-elect Lacey Beaty said she understands. While having a firm understanding of the city's position, she also feels for the Barcelona tenants and the issues they and other disabled people regularly face.
"What happens when the minimum's not enough?" asked Beaty, a city councilor who unseated three-term incumbent Denny Doyle in the mayoral election last Tuesday, Nov. 3. "We're building our downtown core in a way that we want it to be more accessible and we want people to live there, but these issues are going to continue to come forward, and so we need to ask ourselves — should we only be making rules with a minimum in mind?"
First elected to the Beaverton City Council in 2014, Beaty previously worked full-time as the director for the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center's school-based health clinics, overseeing six locations throughout Washington and Yamhill counties. She said her time at Virginia Garcia taught her the connection and importance between specific accommodations and people's success resulting from tackling those specific issues.
"As a disabled veteran myself, I understand that not everyone's disability is the same, nor is it out there for everyone to see," said Beaty, who served in Iraq. "We have no idea the amount of accommodations people need. We're getting more proficient at it, and I think if we could take that same model we used at Virginia Garcia as part of our educational system and apply it to our businesses and areas of government, with people's personal success as the focus, we could make things look different."
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, who represents Clatsop, Columbia, Washington and Yamhill counties in Congress and sponsored legislation in 2019 to update and revitalize programs and services that support nearly 11 million aging Americans and their caregivers, didn't speak specifically to the Barcelona situation, but she made a case for the importance of her work.
"We have a responsibility to care for seniors, who have cared for us, and to help them live their lives with dignity," Bonamici said. "Earlier this year, I led the passage of an important update to the Older Americans Act that responds to the challenges facing aging Americans and increases funding for OAA programs by 35 percent. This law is now in place and helping more than 11 million seniors by increasing outreach to underserved populations, providing added support to family caregivers and more. I'm also leading legislation to protect seniors from financial fraud and to make sure LGBTQ seniors are treated with dignity and respect."
But Pettit, who communicated directly with Bonamici's representatives about her issue, was frustrated by what she perceived as a lack of commitment from the congresswoman.
"Suzanne Bonamici, she sponsored that (Dignity in Aging Act)," Pettit said. "So we're just like, what is this, smoke and mirrors? Is it just to make her look good? I mean, it's time to act."
Beaverton used to have a Citizens With Disabilities Advisory Committee, but it's since gone defunct. The city has recently felt community pressure to revive the board. Beaty said she likes the idea of it, but she offered that it might look different as part of its new iteration.
"When we talk about the Bicycle Advisory Committee, we also should be talking about ADA," Beaty said. "When we're talking about human rights, we should also be talking about ADA. When we talk about equity, we should be talking about ADA. So I've asked them to kind of be creative in their approach to bringing this board back. Maybe it doesn't look exactly like the other boards and commissions, but can we be creative in how we're addressing these issues."
Truax said he is happy with Forest Grove's approach to ADA and other issues facing older adults, but at the same time, he cautioned against complacency, fully aware of the dangers any community faces when it takes its eye off of the proverbial ball.
"I think we can do more," Truax said. "Sometimes we have a tendency, and Forest Grove's not different than any other community sometimes, to say, 'We're doing a great job,' and relax a bit. That can be a slippery slope, so we need to be very focused in our endeavors when it comes equity, diversity and inclusion."
And Loucks? Like his Barcelona brethren, he just wants to live his life the best way possible: independently.
"None of us want to be disabled, we're just stuck with it," he said. "I don't think we're asking for much. We just want to live in the best way possible, and it feels like what we're asking is a pretty small cost to do what's right."
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