ADA coordinator keeps watch over state projects to ensure compliance
CPROVIDENCE onstruction 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
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.
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.