The Return From Walk/Bike/Places 2018: Planning for People First, All People – Our Collective Work is Accessibility

This is a guest blog post by Juliette Rizzo.Juliette Rizzo is the former Ms. Wheelchair America, one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women and a long-time inclusive health and wellness advocate. Juliette is a nationally recognized public speaker and has over two decades of experience designing and producing largescale, highly visible public events. Click here to contact Juliette.

Rolling in the tire tracks of some of the great leaders of the disability rights movement, like Judith E. Heumann, who have gone before us, fellow disability advocate Garrett Brumsfeld and myself, took pride in our presence at Walk/Bike/Places 2018 earlier this fall, amplifying the message that if we want to make this world truly accessible and create great places, accessibility needs to be put first as part of the original design conversation — whether it be for streetscapes or community space — rather than an afterthought for compliance or simply to meet construction standards.

As emissaries of the message and the movement, our ambitious mobile workshop set out to prove that while we may navigate space differently, everyone should have a full range of possibilities and choices available to them when experiencing place.

With a stealth team of attendees, representing everything from transit authorities and engineers to the Statewide Independent Living Council, we set out with a simple goal in mind of utilizing multimodal transportation to get our group to the first, fully all-inclusive playground in New Orleans, Walnut Street Playground in Audubon Park, dedicated by Drew Brees and his foundation for children of all abilities, regardless of mobility or sensory challenges.

Learning from the best how to implement an inclusionary walk audit, we scouted out opportunities and challenges two days before, selected a real destination, got our yellow safety vests ready and sought out local guides to provide input to select routes to get us there.

While everything about the playground was mapped out with different abilities in mind, we never made it to our actual destination, because of the transportation challenges for people with disabilities we faced in getting there the day of the mobile workshop. We made it to the other side of the park, however, and couldn’t have planned a better, more teachable moment to align with the equity theme of the conference.

While it is important in place making for both long-time residents and tourists to benefit from new revitalization, it’s really important that people, especially people with disabilities in this case, are not displaced in the planning and design processes. A report on equitable development and culture from PolicyLink notes, “Without equity, community redevelopment can improve a physical place but leave the people behind…”

From sidewalks and pedestrian crosswalks being blocked to buses not letting us on board, cars honking at us in shared bike lanes and having to withstand the heat (I could just hear renowned walk leader Mark Fenton saying “All weather is relevant.”), we experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of trying to get to this place. The hardest thing to accept was when the bus stopped, but a third person in a manual wheelchair was left behind in the overwhelming heat, because the bus didn’t allow for more than two wheelchair spaces.

We shared with our workshop participants how we felt about being initially left behind by a bus driver who refused to pick all of us up, because he said, “my bus does not go your direction,” which we found out from another driver immediately behind him that it actually did. We discussed how it felt to our participants and how we might collectively solve this problem for all types of users.

At first, we felt bad, knowing that we were stuck, the clock was ticking and that people had paid for this workshop. We second guessed ourselves and replayed the tapes in our heads that we should have known better, when just the day before when planning the route, the bus driver refused to take my wheelchair and Garrett’s scooter together on the bus. We decided to go with our initial plan anyway to show the real deal of everyday disability…that we were not the problem or the “disabled,” but that the plans, pathways and poor design we faced on that day did the disabling by blocking, restricting or even eliminating our pathways to an accessible park, designed specifically for people just like us.

The rest of our workshop played out as if we were hosting a reality television show — all of us navigating an unscripted, real-life situation with a cast of individuals, not necessarily prepared for the inaccessible circumstances or competing for some prize, but some showing off their skills to deal with a novel situation, while others wanted “off the island,” or inaccessible pedestrian island, that is, and actually left the team and returned to the conference site.

Upon finally arriving on the other side of Audubon park over two hours later, and not having enough time left in the workshop to traverse to the playground, one of our participants pointed to the art and architecture, which is everywhere at Audubon Park and Zoo. Directly in front of the bus depot was the sculpture of a lion.

“We are the lions,” one of our attendees proudly roared. “We made it!”

Taking the lion’s symbolism of strength, courage and justice to heart, she was right — we all did make it to the park that day, and I’m glad that Garrett and I, and all of those participants who stuck by our side, had the courage and strength to do so. With her inclusive comment, and the presence of the amazing and inspiring people from the architecture, government, planning and transportation worlds that we had met on this ride, we had found a true sense of belonging amongst our peers and our place, not as people with disabilities, but as people first, advocating together that places and pathways must be accessible to everyone, so we do not unintentionally exclude people from the social activities and economic opportunities going on in that space.

As our mobile workshop came to a close, one participant, an active transportation engineer in San Diego, sums it up best. “As a society, we should design along our values. And hopefully, our values line up with the green hierarchy, which puts designing for wheelchair users, pedestrians who are blind, the young and the old first.” He went on to say, “when we design for our most vulnerable, the transportation system works for us all.”

We’ve arrived simultaneously at the same intersection of place making and social justice, and in this case, we are all the drivers of change that needs to happen everywhere to make full inclusion a reality. So, as you continue to walk, bike and improve the quality of place wherever you live, please continue the conversation we started in our mobile workshop and ask is this space built for people first — all people.

Ironically, no sooner did I return from the bustling streets of New Orleans from the Walk/Bike/Places 2018 conference to my own streets in Bethesda, MD, that I was shocked to overhear one of my fellow pedestrians in a crosswalk at a popular intersection on a Saturday night angrily cry out when walking past me in my wheelchair, “What does she think that she has the right of way or something?”

While right of way is a rule of safe, smart driving that controls most intersections when drivers arrive at an intersection simultaneously, I was merely a fellow pedestrian walking across the street with the gentleman like everyone else. Although bicycles are considered “vehicles,” and are subject to the same rules as other drivers, utilizing a power wheelchair for mobility, I never saw myself as a vehicle — I am a person first.