A Disability Friendly City

Ensuring that Age Friendly is Inclusive for All

As I was reaching out to community folks who have been a part of the San Francisco’s Age and Disability Friendly Plan, I had heard some comments over the last few months that some had felt like the effort and the plan hadn’t done enough to really engage people with disabilities or identify how their needs may differ from seniors. Additionally, when I joined the team managing this daunting project, I recognized how easy it would be to have a plan that was inclusive in name only – planning for a city that is accessible for seniors, as well as people with disabilities is an enormous task. Of course there may be some areas where their needs and desires overlap, I’m willing to bet there will be other areas where they differ greatly but we’ll need to consider and incorporate both perspectives. Not to mention that we’re also incorporating the needs of caregivers and people with dementia into this plan as well.

So, these last few months I’ve been on a fact finding mission – learning as much as I can about local advocacy efforts, resources, and groups in San Francisco that are working on disability rights issues. A few months back I had a chance to meet the staff of San Francisco State University’s Paul Longmore Institute on Disability, which aims to “celebrate people with disabilities as innovative forces for social change”. A great local resource, the Institute works with students, plans community based events, has a resource library and are generally challenging the ways folks think about disabilities. The founder, Paul K. Longmore, said that, “Prejudice is a far greater problem than any impairment; discrimination is a bigger obstacle to overcome than any disability.” Case in point: check out their video about the work they do – I just LOVE that they point out that pirates are actually people with disabilities. What a refreshing way to think!

Check out their awesome video here:

As an advocate for accessible cities, I’m constantly challenging myself to think about disabilities from a rights perspective, to see the whole person and not the ability or disability immediately, while recognizing that people with disabilities lead “independent, self-affirming lives and who define themselves according to their person-hood – their ideas, beliefs, hopes and dreams – above and beyond their disability.”

Additionally, in my research on local disability rights efforts, I discovered that there was a pivotal civil rights protest right here in San Francisco in 1973. In sum: disability rights activists were tired of the federal government dragging its heels on implementing accessibility requirements in public spaces and on public transportation (specifically section 504 of the ADA), so they occupied a federal building for over a month. Wowzers! These were folks who may have needed an assistant for daily activities, needed an oxygen machine, or other medical equipment, which made sleeping in a cold granite federal building extremely challenging. Yet, building on the civil rights movements erupting all over they Bay Area, they were well supported by locals, with the Black Panthers bringing in meals. Local disability rights activist Bruce Oka shared this link (and makes a guest appearance in the background!) HERE. Ultimately the government agreed and now section 504 funds local initiatives (all across the US) that aim to increase transportation for people with disabilities, a truly inspiring story, but more on that HERE if you’re curious.

I bring this up because while half of the Age and Disability Friendly SF project aims to increase the inclusivity and accessibility for people with disabilities, I’m still learning myself exactly what that means and what implementation looks like. Because, full disclosure: I’m not perfect at this. Just in the same way we live in a racist culture, we’re also born, raised, and living in an “ablest” culture, where disability is seen as a weakness or something to be fixed, and all kinds of assumptions are made on behalf of people with disabilities. Which also brings me back to the efforts of Norman Krumholz and equity planning – as public employees, figuring out how to provide the tools for communities to lead the dialogue about what they need. I firmly believe that being an effective urban planner requires an acceptance that planning for communities never works, rather it needs to be a process of planning with communities. On that note, I’m working with organizations and a local university to figure out how to incorporate folks with disabilities in meaningful ways, ensuring that we include folks with ALL types of disabilities, an exciting task for sure. More to come!

On that note, I’ll leave you with my favorite new super hero (sent to me courtesy of the thoughtful dude wife).

Introducing, Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham:

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Age Friendly City

Ensuring cities are built for everyone