Wheelchair ramps miss the point as aid for handicapped

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News
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Handicap accessible corner curbs along Warren East at Elmwood in front of a burnt out building and unusable sidewalks due to debris and foliage in Detroit.
  • The city estimates it needs to build another 50,000 ramps at $60 million to comply with the order.
  • The court-ordered sidewalk ramps were to bring Detroit in line with U.S. handicapped access laws.
  • One half-mile stretch of crumbling, weedy sidewalks along East Warren near Conner has 52 new ramps.

This summer, Detroit spent tens of thousands of dollars replacing sidewalk wheelchair ramps in little traveled areas.

The bankrupt city put in ramps, costing about $10,000 per intersection, along crumbling sidewalks along Warren near Conner. In one half-mile stretch, from St. Jean to Cadillac, there are 52 new sets of ramps.

Some face brick walls. Others provide access to an empty lot where Helen Joy Middle School stood until it was razed in 2009. On many corners, sidewalks end after the ramps.

"You drive down some of these streets and there are blocks of no houses, but pretty new curbs," said Sherman Hayes, 84, a retired nurse who lives nearby on Lakewood Street. "Look at all these ramps to nowhere. It makes my blood boil."

Detroit officials say they have no choice. The work is the latest in a decadelong, court-imposed effort to force Detroit into compliance with federal handicapped accessible laws.

An order from U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen requires the city to build ramps on every road it resurfaces — and at every local intersection of major roads, said Ron Brundidge, director of the city's department of public works. In eight years, the city has spent $30 million to install 25,000 ramps. The work is far from over: City officials estimate they need to build another 50,000 ramps for $60 million to comply.

Few are happy.

Retired nurse Sherman Hayes points out two recently built sidewalk ramps on East Warren. Just beyond the ramp, the sidewalk ends.

Detroit is using gas taxes that otherwise could be spent on fixing streets to build ramps in often empty neighborhoods. Wheelchair users agree that building so-called ramps to nowhere is a waste of money — but point out there are still large areas of the city without working ramps.

Talks began for a compromise but ended when Detroit declared bankruptcy last year. Neither side can change the plan because the ongoing bankruptcy trial suspended litigation, but wheelchair advocates say they want to resume talks when the trial ends.

"We'd rather see the city's limited resources applied to areas with more foot traffic," said Michael Harris, executive director of Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, which sued to enforce federal law mandating the ramps.

"It makes absolutely no sense to build them in some of these areas."

Within the past year, new ramps were installed a few blocks south of Warren in front of a burned-out liquor store at Cadillac and Canfield. The sidewalk ends 10 feet after the ramp, which is overgrown with weeds. Over on Kercheval, ramps provide access to empty lots and burned out homes near Canton.

"Who would think it's OK to put up ramps where there are no houses?" Hayes asked. "In the wintertime, how are you going to use those ramps when there is no one who lives there to shovel?"

Meanwhile, better-traveled areas — even some near downtown — lack working ramps, making getting around "very, very difficult" for wheelchair users such as Inene Laverne, she said.

"They need to put in ramps where they are needed," said Laverne, 50, who lives near Midtown and has used a motorized wheelchair for eight years because of a bad back.

"Sometimes, you have to go into the street and they are raggedy. It messes up your suspension and you need to get your wheels replaced."

Before the work this year, there were ramps up and down East Warren. It was easy for wheelchair users to travel east and west, but getting to the other side of Warren required a few turns into traffic.

"Basically, they were put in the position of jaywalking," said J. Mark Finnegan, an attorney for the veterans group.

Now, every corner along the stretch has at least two new orange "tactile warning" curb ramps with raised bumps. One faces the cross street, the other faces Warren.

The ramps are the nicest part of the sidewalks on Warren. In several stretches, the sidewalks are broken and almost unpassable.

Graphic by

"There's a question of how much benefit the city receives for something that is underutilized," Brundidge said.

"We aren't disputing the need for sidewalks to be accessible for all, but someone could make an argument that it isn't the best use for taxpayer dollars when you look at the money spent and compare it to how much it is used."

The law requiring the ramps isn't new. The Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1991. Detroit signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004 to build all the ramps by 2007. The veterans sued in 2006 when the city had made no progress, said Denise Heberle, an Ann Arbor-based attorney for the group.

"We hear it all the time: 'Poor bankrupt Detroit has to put up curb cuts it can't afford because of those paralyzed veterans,' " she said. "If Detroit had followed the law a long time ago, it wouldn't be in this position."

Finnegan said about 400 intersections downtown still lack working ramps. The city agreed to build ramps first in an area roughly from Grand River to Jefferson and the Lodge to Interstate 375. It built about 4,800 but has "absolutely refused" to complete the rest, Finnegan said.

On Gratiot, the ramps are so steep that wheelchair users have to go up them in reverse, Finnegan said. Otherwise, the wheelchairs will tip over, he said.

"We've been saying for years, 'fix these ramps and stop working in the middle of nowhere,' and they won't do it," Finnegan said.

Until recently, Woodward and Jefferson near the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center lacked working ramps because of a standoff over whether the city or state should build them. The city had contended it shouldn't be responsible for major roads that double as state routes.

"Every intersection is supposed to be accessible and it should have been done a long time ago," Finnegan said. "When the bankruptcy settles, we are going to be back on them again."


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