Sidewalk Accessibility and Racial Justice

The fight for accessible sidewalks has a long history in the disability community, challenging barriers like steep, broken, or missing curb cuts; broken pavement; tables or other objects that narrow the sidewalk so a person cannot pass in wheelchair.  Longer still, and perhaps less well known to disability rights lawyers, is the history of sidewalk barriers in racial injustice. 

Sidewalk Inequality

For Cedric Murphy in Shreveport, Louisiana, the link was direct:  Police ticketed Mr. Murphy, who is Black, for “walking” in the street when he diverted his wheelchair from a broken sidewalk.  The prohibition on walking in the street is, according to the Shreveport Times, mostly used against Black residents.  The law is like the one police invoked in stopping and shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Mr. Murphy sued under the ADA; he tells his story in this video: “I fear for my safety.”

Missing and broken sidewalks can be part of what law professor Sarah Schindler calls “architectural exclusion”: physical barriers in a city’s construction that serve to wall off communities of color.  Neglected infrastructure—like cracked sidewalks—keeps people from accessing jobs or public life. These barriers affect people who live in segregated, poor communities, and also people who have disabilities. Often—disproportionately—both are true.

People of color are more likely to live in poor communities and more likely to have mobility disabilities.

  • A National Equity Atlas analysis of census data shows a higher percentage of Black, Latino, and Native American people live in high-poverty neighborhoods.
  • CDC statistics show a higher percentage of Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander people than white people have mobility difficulties affecting walking and climbing stairs. 

The underlying conditions of our history have led to these inequalities.

It is not surprising, then, that a study of New Orleans found disparity cemented into the city’s sidewalks. “Neighborhoods with higher poverty rates were less likely to have continuous sidewalks. But the correlation was even stronger in non-white communities,” according to a 2015 Washington Post report.  Wealth is a factor, but so is race.

Painting of swaths of color in vertical and horizontal blocks
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

ADA Requirements for Sidewalks

Courts are holding governments responsible for providing ADA-compliant sidewalks.  For example, in April, Stephen Hamer, of Trinidad, Colorado, announced a settlement of his lawsuit about the city’s inaccessible sidewalks.  After years of advocacy that included a key legal victory,[1] Mr. Hamer, who uses a motorized wheelchair, and his lawyers, negotiated a plan for the city “to modify its sidewalks and curb cuts so that all of its citizens with and without disabilities will have an equal opportunity to travel freely and safely.”

Federal appeals courts have long held that sidewalks are subject to the ADA and have to be accessible.[2]  Financial concerns are real, but accessible sidewalks are a legal right and necessity in daily life, not an amenity.[3]  Nor is Hamer unique – advocates achieved similar recent settlements in many other cities, including New York City

A Growing Movement

In 2018, Bloomberg News reported “a growing movement that demands accessible, well-maintained sidewalks—and rejects budgetary constraints as an excuse.”  Perhaps this movement offers hope for both racial and disability justice.

[1] Hamer v. City of Trinidad, 924 F.3d 1093, 1097 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 140 S. Ct. 644 (2019).

[2] See, e.g., Frame v. City of Arlington, 657 F.3d 215 (5th Cir. 2011); Barden v. City of Sacramento, 292 F.3d 1073, 1076 (9th Cir. 2002); Kinney v. Yerusalim, 9 F.3d 1067 (3d Cir. 1993).

[3] See Hamer, 924 F.3d at 1110.