Friday, March 7, 2008

San Francisco votes against accessible Board of Supervisors' chambers; Mayor urges lawsuit against city

The ironic aspect of this story is that the Bay Area is known historically for its excellent accessibility for people with disabilities, and activists there helped start the disability rights movement in the 1970s.

For example, one of the most important early disability rights protests occurred in San Francisco in 1977. According to San Francisco State's disability rights chronology, "disability rights activists in 10 cities stage demonstrations and occupations of the offices of the federal Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) to force the Carter Administration to issue regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The demonstrations galvanize the disability community nationwide, particularly the San Francisco action, which lasts nearly a month. On 28 April, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano signs the regulations."

The Board of Supervisors voted 6-5 on March 4 against making the chambers accessible by lowering the podium and constructing a 10-foot-long ramp to it. Those opposed said the $1.1 million cost of the accommodations was too high. The high cost apparently comes from the care that will have to be taken in the historic room, which has a Manchurian oak platform and podium from 1915.

On March 7, the Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, called for a lawsuit against the city, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, "it was 'unconscionable' that the city forces private entities to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and yet voted down the ramp leading to the podium used by the board president."

Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair, and she said after the Board vote against the accommodations that she would sue San Francisco so it would comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

From a media coverage standpoint, I was sorry to see several of the stories about this significant topic buried in the B section of the San Francisco Chronicle, but of course, a column complaining about the cost of the ramp did make page B1. However, the column did allow the director of the mayor's Office on Disability, Susan Mizner, to give a comment. "It's crazy," she admitted about the cost. "But this is just the price of doing business in a historic building."