Going for a walk is a daily ordeal for Guillermina Hernández. The 83-year-old Boyle Heights resident has bad knees and ankles and must use a walker to get around.  But uprooted trees block part of her pathway outside her home near Breed and First streets.

“On Breed Street, walking towards Fourth Street, the sidewalks are a disaster,” said Hernández, who frequents the Boyle Heights Senior Center. “There are these holes where my walker gets stuck.”

The Bureau of Street Services has estimated that approximately 40 percent of Los Angeles sidewalks are in dire need of repair. Soon, residents like Hernández may be able to get the city to fix troublesome sidewalks in their neighborhoods.

A recently settled lawsuit will force the city to spend $31 to $63 million dollars annually over three decades, starting with the 2015-16 budget, to mend broken sidewalks all over Los Angeles. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a quarter million disabled city residents, claimed the city was in violation of the American With Disabilities Act (ADA). The settlement of nearly $1.4 billion is considered the highest payout ever in an ADA claim.

Advocates for the disabled say the improvements required by the settlement will better the lives of Angelenos with mobility issues who, according to plaintiffs, have been treated like second-class citizens.

Moral victory

The settlement was a “moral victory” for the disabled and the elderly, according to Lillibeth Navarro, executive director of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free (CALIF), a party to the lawsuit.

“People with physical disabilities who struggle with pain, with isolation, with all kinds of stress and suffering, we deserve some attention,” she said.

Congress passed the ADA on July 26,1990, more than 25 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA, which came after a long struggle by organizations and individuals, extended civil rights protections to the disabled. It also mandated that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities and imposed accessibility requirements for public buildings, restrooms and sidewalks.

Some advocates say that 25 years later, many buildings and public facilities are still not in compliance. According to Navarro, this is especially true of low-income communities like Boyle Heights.

“The ADA says people with disabilities should have equal access to the world, but the first part of the world is the street outside your home,” Navarro said. “So if you cannot get past the street outside your home, if the sidewalk makes it impossible to get out of the house, then it is a barrier to your civil rights.”

“In the areas of the city where the poor live, where minorities live, they need equal access to the world as well,” she added.

This is all too well known to Jerry López, a 61-year-old Boyle Heights’ resident who uses a wheelchair after suffering a stroke five years ago. Now an advocate for people with disabilities, López says there are many sidewalks in Boyle Heights that he cannot use in his wheelchair.

“I have to navigate on the streets because there are barriers everywhere,” said López. He says that many institutions fall short of complying with both the spirit and the letter of the law.

López, a homeless man who is often seen at public meetings and events in Boyle Heights, said many people have an uncaring attitude towards those with mobility disabilities.

“My, it’s scary,” he stressed. “They have no regard for you. Like you’re a problem, ‘get out of the way.’”

López, who goes to Mass daily, says that many Catholic churches –exempt from the ADA, like all religious institutions– lack ramps and other basic accommodations. He said because his complaints went unanswered by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, he wrote to Pope Francis, asking him to intervene.

“I love my church, La Placita. It’s easy for me to get in and spend time in prayer, go to Mass. But I can’t go to the bathroom there,” he explained. “I have to go to the museum next door or the train station.”

López, an advocate with the recently established community organization ADAPT LA, says public transportation can also be a big issue for the disabled, especially when passengers refuse to give up their seats to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, and drivers refuse to enforce the law.

Spaces between seats on Gold Line trains are narrower than in other lines, López says, making it difficult for passengers in wheelchairs to move inside a train car.

Jerry López finds many barriers as he navigates the sidewalks of Boyle Heights with his wheelchair. Photos by Art Torres.

“Back to basics”

The city’s battered sidewalks should be a priority, he said “Let’s go back to basics,” López pleaded. “Fix the sidewalks so that they are safe for people to navigate.”

Even before settling the lawsuit, the city had allotted $27 million to the 2014-15 budget for fixing sidewalks next to parks and other government facilities. In addition, some council members have used money from their discretionary funds to fix sidewalks in their districts.

District 14 Councilmember José Huízar, for instance, has used $500,000 in discretionary funds to repair some of the most damaged sidewalks in his district, which includes Boyle Heights. According to Huízar’s office, the money went to fix walkways near parks, a church and a senior center.

Under the settlement, the city will begin repairing sidewalks with the heaviest traffic and those near parks and public facilities, as well as some requested by disabled people.

Navarro, the advocate with Communities Actively Living, says that fixing the sidewalks will benefit many more than just the disabled. People without disabilities can still fall and suffer injuries, too–including those who are distracted while walking because they’re on cell phones.

“It’s not just for us,” she said. “It’s for the whole society.”

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