Call & Times

ADA coordinato­r keeps watch over state projects to ensure compliance

- By STELLA LORENCE | slorence@woonsocket­

Constructi­on was just about completed on the footbridge crossing the Providence River, later renamed the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge, when Denyse Wilhelm happened to take a walk past it.

It wasn’t the creative use of the old I-195 concrete piers, or the picturesqu­e views of the river Wilhelm noticed, but was the lower structure, built beneath the main walking path, that caught her attention.

“It was completely inaccessib­le,” she said. “And this is a brand-new project.”

As one of two full-time Americans with Disabiliti­es Act coordinato­rs working for the Governor’s Commission on Disabiliti­es, it’s part of Wilhelm’s job to notice when a building, service or structure like the footbridge is inaccessib­le to people with disabiliti­es, and to work with state agencies to remedy, or ideally, avoid those issues.

But since the influx of state and federal aid has spurred a multitude of upcoming infrastruc­ture projects across the state, Wilhelm and the GCD fore

‘There’s no us and them, there’s no other. We’re all one step away from a disability’

see their workload ballooning to levels that could delay projects or result in inaccessib­le plans moving into constructi­on. Before she was hired at the GCD, four full-time positions covered the work that Wilhelm now takes on solo.

“If taxpayers know that these oversights, and not having the proper staffing in any of these positions – it’s affecting lives and it’s costing money,” she said.

The Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge is just one example of the costly, preventabl­e scenario that results from a lack of GCD involvemen­t early in the process.

“Even a woman or a man with a baby stroller, if they tried to go down there and for some reason lost control, the baby would be in the water,” Wilhelm said. “I mean, it would just be launched. So, we put a stop to the project.”

The Department of Transporta­tion and the I-195 Commission oversaw the footbridge project, and Wilhelm said they didn’t submit their plans to the GCD before they started constructi­on. Wilhelm worked with the City of Providence and other agencies to redo the inaccessib­le portions of the bridge and bring the whole thing up to code, which added about $600,000 to the total cost of the project.

“That’s my civil rights advocacy side,” Wilhelm said. “All of those services need to be accessible to people with disabiliti­es, no matter what that is.”

The Governor’s Commission of Disabiliti­es was formed in 1956 as the “Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicappe­d and Aging” by former Gov. Dennis Roberts. It’s been renamed four times since then, most recently to its current name in 1997.

The Commission’s function today is to “ensure that all people with disabiliti­es are afforded the opportunit­ies to exercise all the rights and responsibi­lities accorded to citizens of this state,” according to their website.

As part of that function, the GCD, and more specifical­ly, Wilhelm herself, is tasked with working with the state’s Building Code Commission to ensure that all state buildings are ADA-compliant. By law, the GCD’s place in the process comes before building or renovation plans are approved and building permits are issued, but Wilhelm said when she joined the GCD, she got a sense from her colleague at the BCC that the Commission wasn’t seeing all the plans.

“I got our Commission involved, then, strategica­lly within that system,” Wilhelm said. “So I review all of those design plans for new plans or any renovation­s to any state building. And there are over 200 state buildings.”

Wilhelm summed up her career as always centered around “civil rights regarding people with disabiliti­es,” including work in state institutio­ns, higher education and nonprofits. She joined the GCD in 2018.

“The story goes that I showed up and did the interview, and they hired me on the spot,” she said, laughing. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, as far as having someone respond that quickly, but I enjoy the work.”

There’s a lot of work for Wilhelm to enjoy.

Wilhelm’s official title is the “ADA coordinato­r for title 2 and title 3.” Title 2 of the ADA prohibits discrimina­tion on the basis of disability in all services, programs and activities provided by state and local government­s; this is the part of the statute that covers Wilhelm’s work reviewing state buildings.

Title 3 prohibits discrimina­tion on the basis of disability in “places of public accommodat­ion,” including businesses, restaurant­s, movie theaters, schools, recreation­al facilities and doctor’s offices.

Between the two titles, Wilhelm lays eyes on plans for everything from parks overseen by the Department of Environmen­tal Management to train stations managed by the Department of Transporta­tion to new restaurant­s being built by private businesses.

“I try to be very efficient, for sure,” she said. “But the running joke is that unless they buy a clone machine, not everything’s going to get done at this point.”

School, election access

Schools, in particular, may begin to make up a bigger share of Wilhelm’s workload.

In 2018, Rhode Island voters approved a school bond measure that created six temporary bonus incentives and access to $250 million in funding for school constructi­on. Several districts have already begun to take advantage of those funds, but for projects to be eligible for many of the bonus incentives, constructi­on must begin by the end of this year or next, depending on the type of project. Gov. Dan McKee and the Rhode Island Department of Education also announced in February that they are pushing for a second $250 million school constructi­on bond to go before voters this November.

“With the influx of additional funds for the schools coming through, all those schools are going to be submitting plans, and it’s just a matter of not being able to keep up with plan reviews, just for schools alone,” Wilhelm said.

In addition, in elections years like this one, Wilhelm and the GCD are responsibl­e for ensuring that all of the nearly 500 polling places in the state are accessible. GCD has already begun doing pre-inspection­s for those polling places with the Board of Elections, which they are trying to complete before the end of May. And although the GCD has hired a contractor to help review the polling places, Wilhelm said there’s always the concern that contractor­s won’t stay in those roles, since they lack benefits.

“We need to replace the folks,” she said. “We’ve become this, what we call a choke-point, for any of the design work. There’s plenty of work to be done for more staff.”

Wilhelm has establishe­d good working relationsh­ips with several state agencies, which she said makes the job easier. Agencies that have already worked with her learn quickly to seek approval in the planning stage and prevent accessibil­ity oversights that are more costly and time-consuming to correct once constructi­on has started, she said. Otherwise, the only way agencies or the GCD gets notified about inaccessib­le buildings or services is when someone files a complaint.

Wilhelm’s desk is where these complaints land.

She recalled an example from 2017 that garnered national attention. A resident at the R.I. Veterans Home in Bristol was stuck in his room because the doorways at the $121 million facility were not wide enough for his wheelchair to fit through. The state had to redesign and rebuilt over 20 doorways to remedy the situation.

“People with disabiliti­es should not have to resort to a complaint process,” Wilhelm said. “They’re already marginaliz­ed. You’re further marginaliz­ing them by making them go through that process, and you’re then also creating an adversaria­l environmen­t.”

Wilhelm said a lot of the issues that result in complaints or costly reconstruc­tion stem from a general misunderst­anding of what the ADA requires. She hosts occasional trainings to raise awareness that can prevent inaccessib­le designs from moving forward. She said participan­ts are generally receptive to the trainings.

220,000 disabled

Oce Harrison, project director for the New England ADA Center, took it one step further and said many people narrowly tailor their understand­ing of the ADA because of perception­s about who the law protects.

“When people think of the ADA, they think it’s for people who use wheelchair­s, people who are blind and people who are deaf, end of story,” Harrison said. “They think it’s for people who are born with disabiliti­es.”

Over 220,000 adults in Rhode Island have a disability, or about 27% of the population. Among those, the most common type of disability, at 13%, is cognitive disability that makes it difficult to concentrat­e, remember or make decisions, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Harrison added that the majority of conditions that cause disabiliti­es are chronic diseases that substantia­lly limit a person’s ability to function in their life. Aging, addiction and mental health can also contribute to someone’s disability status.

“The ADA was written broadly enough to be able to say it’s for all of us,” Harrison said. “There’s no us and them, there’s no other. We’re all one step away from a disability.”

The New England ADA Center, which is based in Boston, works to raise awareness of people’s rights under the ADA, and provides informatio­n, training and guidance to individual­s, businesses and government organizati­ons.

Wilhelm works closely with the New England ADA Center and the correspond­ing organizati­ons in other neighborin­g states, pooling resources and sharing ideas. Each state structures its equivalent agency differentl­y; Connecticu­t’s is majority volunteer-based, funded by a grant from the New England ADA Center.

“I’m glad we have a Commission. We have the state agency framework, we just need to restore the staffing levels,” Wilhelm said. “I may look youthful, but I’m not at the beginning of my career. It doesn’t make sense to not have a plan, to have a full-time equivalent, not a contractor position, but someone who’s committed to stay with the agency so you can have that longevity.”

In the meantime, Wilhelm keeps working to make the state more accessible, one building, park or program at a time.

 ?? Photo by Ernest A. Brown ?? Denyse Wilhelm, of the Governor’s Commission on Disabiliti­es, is pictured in her office Wednesday.
Photo by Ernest A. Brown Denyse Wilhelm, of the Governor’s Commission on Disabiliti­es, is pictured in her office Wednesday.
 ?? ?? Pictured, the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge, a $22 million pedestrian walkway in Providence.
Pictured, the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge, a $22 million pedestrian walkway in Providence.

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