Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Advocates worry about inaccessible presidential inauguration

From the D.C. Examiner Dec. 30. The picture shows the crowds at the 2005 inauguration.

Those with physical disabilities will find Barack Obama’s inauguration all but inaccessible, and organizers are concerned that people with disabilities may be forced to stay home.

According to a release from the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies — the group responsible for the details of Obama’s swearing-in — parking restrictions near the Capitol include cars with disability plates or tags. Drop-off points for the disabled will be located several blocks away, and “traffic conditions and restrictions may make reaching these drop-off locations extremely difficult,” the release said.

Even for those who finally arrive, designated areas for people with disabilities in the coveted ticketed section of the festivities are “limited in size and available on a first-come, first-served basis.”

“This is like a big, bold sign that says if you’re a person with a disability, this is not your event,” said Richard Simms, executive director of D.C. Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit that promotes independent lifestyles for disabled residents.

“Everyone is happy and gleeful and it’s a time for hope and change,” Simms added, explaining that he anticipates an Obama administration friendly to his cause. “But in the process of that hope and change, you cannot exclude.”

Carole Florman, spokeswoman for the congressional committee, said her office is “very concerned” about the issue and is planning to be as accessible as possible, but circumstances outside of their control have created unique challenges.

“We can’t do anything about traffic, we can’t bring people closer for drop-off than the security perimeter will allow, we can’t do anything about the fact that the city is closing bridges,” Florman said. “This is of great concern to us.”

What Florman hopes for, she said, is for people — especially those with special needs, such as the disabled, the elderly and those with small children — to take seriously the potential for enormous crowds and dreadful weather, and plan accordingly.

“Some people may be better off trying to watch it on TV,” Florman said.

The group responsible for planning everything but the swearing-in, called the Presidential Inaugural Committee, has a blind staff member working on accessibility issues for events from community service opportunities on Martin Luther King Day to the official inaugural balls, said Andrew Imparato, president and chief executive officer of American Association of People with Disabilities.

“We’d hope the congressional committee could figure out a way to accommodate everybody,” Imparato said. “Our experience is that when accessibility is taken seriously, it makes for a smoother event all around.”