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For some Michigan residents, Proposal 1 is about being included

May 4, 2015

The Next Idea

A “yes” vote on Proposal 1 will improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in Michigan. It is just that simple, and rarely is anything in life that simple – including the language in the actual proposal before us.

At Disability Advocates of Kent County, we have a saying: “If you want better transportation for people with disabilities, stop working for better transportation for people with disabilities.”

Instead, we will get better transportation for people with disabilities in Michigan – true, lasting improvements -- only when it improves for everyone.

Looking at it this way, Proposal 1 is less about a tax increase to fund roads and politicians not doing their jobs, and more about inclusivity.

Michigan's poor sidewalk network isolates many people with disabilities, says David Bulkowski.
Credit Flickr/Tobias Abel

This became clear to me one week last March, when I went around the Grand Rapids area to listen to what people were saying about the proposal.

I heard a room full of people with disabilities tell their state legislators about the need to expand funding for transit.

I went to a meeting with officials from human service agencies and transportation providers who talked about people who are unable to cross jurisdiction lines via public transportation to see their doctors. They also spoke of doctors who are frustrated by the limits of our current systems and simply want to serve their patients. 

I spent a Saturday morning with more than 100 people of faith who were motivated to gather across denominations by a shared sense of injustice and a desire for a more welcoming and inclusive community.

Inclusivity is not often mentioned among the many arguments being bandied about to get people to vote for Proposal 1. It should be.

For nearly 20 years, I have witnessed firsthand how this disinvestment in our transportation system has contributed to people with disabilities feeling isolated from their communities.

So what’s the Next Idea?

If Proposal 1 passes, we have an opportunity to re-imagine our transportation systems in Michigan.

First and foremost, the proposal is about roads. They’re used by everyone for nearly everything, and their quality directly impacts the quality of our lives. 

But once we bring our roads back into the present, fix our crumbling bridges, and add resources to public transit, perhaps we can then turn our attention to one of the most neglected parts of our transportation infrastructure: sidewalks.

Michigan’s sidewalk network is the envy of no one.  As we approach the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July, and the 50th anniversary of the Michigan Barrier Free Design law next year, one would hope we’d be further along on this front. 

Yet we still have way too many places where sidewalks end without ramps, called curb cuts, for wheelchair access to the street level, and a shocking number of places where we don’t even have sidewalks at all.

Driving around Grand Rapids, I have seen a number of intersections with their curb cuts torn out.  In their places will be new ones which actually meet the design standards that the ADA envisions and laid out in good detail.  Unfortunately this is happening too infrequently.

Meanwhile, there are still far too many places where there aren’t even sidewalks. 

For nearly 20 years, I have witnessed firsthand how this disinvestment in our transportation system has contributed to people with disabilities feeling isolated from their communities.

Later this spring, sidewalks will appear along 28th Street — 40 years after this stretch of state highway became one of Grand Rapids’ most important commercial corridors. It has been easy for the engineers and surveyors to know where to put them, as they simply had to follow the foot path worn in the grass.

Too often, developers balk at the expense of incorporating sidewalks into their plans, and too often, cities don’t enforce their sidewalk requirements. But perhaps this new money could lead to a new design paradigm, one in which this would not be tolerated anymore.

This is not about pity for the disabled, this is about empowerment through connecting everyone to the places they need and want to go. And that gets back to the idea that improving transportation for everyone means improvements for people with disabilities.

Where the needs of our residents with disabilities has often failed to encourage more sidewalks, perhaps the recent placemaking efforts by organizations like the Michigan Municipal League to make our cities more livable, walkable and attractive would.  

The governor has made attracting talent to Michigan a priority. These place making efforts are a key component of this bid to compete for the attention of the world’s best and brightest. If successful, they will help diversify our economy and make it more competitive, to everyone’s benefit.  

Fortunately, just like all of the talented people we hope will move here, stay here and help keep our economy vibrant and innovative, people with disabilities in Michigan want to live in more inclusive and accessible communities too. 

David Bulkowski is a Kent County commissioner and the executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County. 

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