Sunday, April 21, 2024

Citizen activists have been badgering officials over access to city-owned properties, saying Cambridge has ignored its disabled and that much improvement is needed.

But these folks — including outspoken disability advocate Kathy Podgers and friends — are preaching to the choir.

Not only do city officials understand the problems facing the handicapped, they understand it all too well. Michael Muehe, the Department of Human Services coordinator for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Carolyn Thompson, the city’s Disability Project Coordinator, are disabled themselves.

Michael Muehe, an official who oversees disability issues for the city, has been handicapped himself since 1976 — one reason for taking the job. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

Michael Muehe, an official who oversees disability issues for the city, has been handicapped himself since 1976 — one reason for taking the job. (Photo: Schuyler Pisha)

Muehe, also the executive director of the disability commission, gets around in a wheelchair since a fall from the roof of a college dormitory while trying to get back into his locked, top-floor room at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Thompson, who has a “facial difference” — she said she greatly prefers that term to “disfigurement” — explained yesterday that having a disability gives them a level of insight others might not have.

“People with disabilities understand and have the experience,” she said. “They know discrimination, not being able to read something, or get up the stairs.”

But she was quick to point out that having a handicap is not a prerequisite for city officials to be able to tackle the problem.

“That would be like saying that somebody who is not black can’t understand racism,” Thompson said. “We need to educate people.”

It was Muehe’s report draft that was presented as an ADA compliance self-evaluation to the City Council last week and panned by vocal critics and gadflies.

Kathy Podgers, prominent in the group that attacked city officials for not making city properties accessible, sent a letter to the council after its last meeting in which she accused the city of “institutional discrimination.”

Last week she compared herself to Rosa Parks, in that she is trying to keep disabled people from having to go to the “back of the bus” in the figurative sense.

Several other citizens echoed her sentiments at last week’s council meeting, and Roy Bercaw, editor of the “Enough Room” television show, followed up with a letter sent to councilors at yesterday’s meeting in which he listed transgressions against the handicapped:

“The Cambridge Handicap Commission is unconcerned with disparate treatment of persons accused of psychiatric illness,” he said. “The handicapped commission itself discriminates unlawfully based upon disability.”

Bercaw also stated in his letter about the “pervasive problem of stereotyping by police and public officials.

“Police officers refuse to listen to some complainants because they are regarded as having a disability,” he wrote.

Lastly, Bercaw stated his concerns about the city having a legitimate plan to take care of people with special medical and access needs in the event of a national emergency or disaster like the flooding in New Orleans, where people, including residents of nursing homes, died as a result of government incompetence.

Muehe said his department is working with the emergency management coordinator, as well as several other departments, and that accommodations have already been secured at several shelters in town, along with instructions on how to evacuate and provide medical treatment for people with disabilities.

That would include him, of course, so he has a vested interest in planning for such things, as he does about ensuring the access on which Podgers and her crew insist.

That is why he got involved in the job, he said.

“I’ve been in a wheelchair since 1976, when I injured my spinal cord,” Muehe said. “It was around the time of the beginning of the disability-rights movement.”

Since then he has been fighting for his rights and the rights of people like him, just as Podgers does.

The only difference is that he is on both sides of the table, and when he speaks, he is a little bit more politic.

However, he respects his critics, including the people who blasted his report on ADA compliance. In it he discussed how $50,000 a year is being allocated to capital improvements for ADA, a façade grant program is showing success in helping upgrade access to buildings in the business community, and how he is working with the Department of Public Works to repair and replace some 109 curb ramps out of the city’s roughly 4,940.

“I believe Ms. Podgers has a significant disability, and some of the questions she raises are completely valid,” Muehe said.

Muehe said he had not heard of Podgers’ complaints, and he admitted that the city does not always respond instantly.

Furthermore, he said there are several outstanding issues at city buildings — such as the police station — that must be addressed.

“It’s in a poor state of repair,” he said, of access to the police station. “It is in lousy condition,” and the handicapped access on the sides of the police station “does not work properly.”

“There is a garage entrance on Western Avenue,” he said. “It’s not ideal. It’s steep. But the front-desk people are very good. They assist people coming in and out.”

Nevertheless, he said, “People should be able to get in without assistance,” which is why he is glad the city is building a police station with appropriate handicapped access.

As for existing buildings, such as City Hall, which has a handicapped entrance way around the back of the building and nothing in front, he explained that many of the buildings in Cambridge are of historical significance and cannot be altered to provide better access without having to perform radical operations — such as putting in a ramp that runs all over the front lawn and taps into the side of the building above the grade level of the second flight of stairs inside the building.

Nevertheless, he said, Cambridge compares well with other communities in the area — impressive, considering the city has a small percentage of people with disabilities.

Muehe pointed out that nationally, the average is 20 percent of the population in a community with some kind of a disability. In Cambridge, he said, it’s only about 14 percent, or 14,000 out of around 101,000.