A scooter blocks handicapped access to a sidewalk in Squirrel Hill. Photo by Ann Belser.

Even before Mayor Ed Gainey hosted a town hall meeting on building a more disability-friendly city, he took steps to address issues for Pittsburgh’s community of people with disabilities.

First, he said, he met with department directors to discuss the issues they saw. Then he allocated $300,000 in next year’s city budget for the Department of City Planning to assess Pittsburgh’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ensure that the city complies with the federal law.

“A lot of times, we have these meetings, and, after the meeting is over nothing happens. Everything goes back to status quo. This is a little different because we started before we had this meeting,” Gainey said. “In my administration, we will work to make sure disability access is front and center in all of our work.”

But during a two-hour public meeting in October attended by members and advocates of the disabled community, the mayor heard that there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

John Tague, a member of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities, noted the high turnout for the hearing, with at least 30 people in City Council Chambers and about 100 more watching via Zoom.

“The disability community is here today because ‘Nothing about us without us’,” Tague said during the meeting, quoting a slogan of advocacy for the disability community. “Pittsburgh for all includes people with all types of disabilities represented in all city initiatives from the beginning.”

Alisa Grishman, founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh, attended the hearing wearing a T-shirt that read, “If you embrace diversity but ignore disability, you’re doing it wrong.”

In her testimony, Grishman pointed out that the lack of sidewalk access is a violation of her civil rights.

“Sidewalk obstructions, such as outdoor dining, sandwich boards, vehicles parked on sidewalks, e-scooters, delivery robots, lack of snow removal, broken and degraded pavement, a lack of tree maintenance, and, in many places, a lack of curb cuts altogether, are in essence signs that say ‘physically abled only.’ But there’s no public outcry over the rights of disabled people being violated,” Grishman said at the meeting.

She called Pittsburgh her “beautiful, wonderful, vibrant home” and then added, “over the last 21 years, as multiple sclerosis has impaired my body more and more, it has become harder and harder to feel that this city loves me as much as I love it.”

She called on the city to make sure that building codes are ADA-compliant and that the city ensures that sidewalks are not obstructed.

Paul O’Hanlon, a disability rights attorney who uses a wheelchair, said inspectors from the city’s Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections (PLI) are allowing businesses to open with occupancy permits even when they have renovated a building and it remains inaccessible, which is a clear violation of the ADA.

McKinley Park stormwater
Disability advocates are pushing for more parking in parks like this one for people with disabilities. Photo by Jeremy Marshall.

“The process of licensing acts of disability discrimination is itself an act of discrimination,” he said. “PLI seems to think the ADA doesn’t apply to it.”

O’Hanlon said he had been told that PLI inspectors need the city to adopt legislation calling on them to enforce the 32-year-old federal law, which, he pointed out, makes no sense, but he asked City Council to do so, anyway.

Even the parks have proven challenging to Tess Dally, of Point Breeze North, who noted that there is no handicapped parking at the Schenley Oval or near the Highland Park Swimming Pool.

Lisa Frank, Pittsburgh’s chief operating and administrative officer, said the city has been hamstrung on sidewalk repair because some sidewalks are owned by the city, some by homeowners, and others by businesses. However, the city is trying to work out a way that it can repair sidewalks if a property owner allows access.

She also added that enforcing the laws that sidewalks must be unobstructed is challenging.

“We do not have a police force, and could not have a police force, large enough to go
after every scooter, every dumpster that needs to be addressed,” said Frank.

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.