Warwick resident Mark Susa is no stranger to overcoming obstacles against the odds. As a man with multiple disabilities, he has spent his entire adult life in a wheelchair. That hasn’t stopped him from being active – he’s a three-time New York City Marathon finalist and was appointed in 2014 by then-Governor Lincoln Chafee to serve a term on the RIPTA Board of Directors – and his skills navigating within his chair are, as you may imagine, quite developed.
So, suffice to say it means something significant that Mark, who lives near the intersection of Post Road and Warwick Avenue, is unable to traverse the populated roadway southward towards where his brother, Frank, lives near the intersection of Warwick Avenue and Sandy Lane without hitting a large number of impassable obstacles along the way.
The problem prompted Mark and Frank, in accordance with their advocate parents and about a dozen volunteers which make up a “personal lifetime advocacy network” – which has the goal of helping Mark live a more enriched, high-quality life – to initiate an accessibility study of this approximately three-and-a-half mile stretch of one of Warwick’s main arteries.
“This is a study that started with a question,” explains John Susa, Mark and Frank’s father. “Can two of our sons, who both have disabilities and who both live on opposite ends of Warwick Avenue and both need wheelchairs, can they ever visit each other without having someone drive them to one another?”
The short answer – stemming from the study, called Access Markers, that began last fall and went throughout this recent spring, before being finalized last week and unveiled during a presentation at the Crowne Plaza on Thursday – is no. Due to various issues, from improperly designed curb cuts, deteriorating conditions over time and manmade and natural obstructions in the sidewalk, someone in a wheelchair would not be able to make it from one end of Warwick Avenue to the other from the safety of the sidewalk.
“These conditions are unsafe. They don't meet [the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA] code, and they could result in injury or even death,” said Connie, Mark and Frank’s mother.
These obstacles can come in many forms. In some cases, they are things as simple as an overgrowth of trees or weeds making curb cuts and sidewalk passage inaccessible, and in other cases they are more significant blockages, like telephone poles or fire hydrants that are placed directly in the middle of sidewalks that prevent continuous access to people on foot or in wheelchairs. In some cases, these obstacles force the pedestrian to venture onto the dangerous roadway, where cars travel at high rates of speed, to make passage.
In total, the group examined a 3.36-mile stretch of Warwick Avenue, from where it meets Post Road to where it meets Sandy Lane, split up into six segments that examined the northbound and southbound sides of the road. They looked for various violations of ADA code, such as portions of sidewalk that had less than 36 inches of clearance, sidewalks with impassable obstacles and curb cuts that were improperly graded or improperly aligned with the sidewalk.
They found many sidewalks that were too narrow, sidewalks that led to nowhere or led to long stretches of grass or gravel, sidewalk panels that had erupted and made access impossible, missing curb cuts, steep inclines where driveways met the sidewalks and even standing signs from local businesses that were carelessly left blockading the sidewalk. Other portions of the road, they made sure to note, were in stellar condition and did comply with ADA protocols.
“The main point [of the study] really is, even if you’re not going the full distance – even a short distance on this road presents a number of obstacles and difficulties,” explained Frank during the Crowne Plaza event.
The Susa family insists that, if these problems create accessibility problems for Mark – who as mentioned before is far above average when it comes to getting around in his wheelchair – and for Frank, who utilizes an electric-powered chair to navigate, then they would present a problem for any other average person with a mobility issue.
Not only for those with disabilities, either, added Frank. He states these problems also present safety issues for kids on bicycles, parents pushing strollers, senior citizens and injured war veterans.
“We all bear the brunt of this,” Frank said.
They believe the issue presents an economic problem as well. Not only does the Susa family believe it has an economic impact on local businesses, as they are unable to capitalize on all possible foot traffic, the obstacles force those with mobility issues to utilize costly services – such as hiring a handicap transportation service or utilizing ride sharing or RIPTA’s handicap van services – which comes at the expense of those without any mobility issues.
“In some cases, it’s not only the individuals with mobility limitations who bear these additional burdens and costs, but even the general tax-paying public,” the report reads. “Some individuals will rely on public services and programs, such as Medicaid-provided home-health staff to accompany them and troubleshoot problems with curb-cuts or along sidewalks. The recourse for others will be to use expensive publicly-subsidized paratransit, including the City of Warwick’s Transwick service or RIPTA’s RIDE service, even for short local trips…all of which may be within walking distance.”
The report also concludes that the accessibility issues present quality of life challenges that unfairly affect those with disabilities.
“It is important to note, in practical terms, that the impediments and risks we’ve documented are likely deterring many vulnerable individuals from traveling anywhere along Warwick Avenue on their own,” the report’s conclusion reads. “This affects both the individual’s autonomy and self-esteem. It also limits their ability to participate fully as equal citizens in their neighborhoods.”
The Susa family realizes that the city of Warwick has a limited ability to deal with the issue in a large-scale capacity, and recognize that Warwick Avenue is actually a state road (Route 117 and 117A). The state Department of Transportation would likely share some responsibility, and federal funding may also be available as it is an ADA issue.
In trying to advocate for the problems and raise awareness, the family has filed a formal complaint about the obstructions with the federal Department of Transportation’s Highway Division, which they hope will prompt a discussion between federal regulators and the state’s division. They have reportedly reached out to Mayor Joseph Solomon, Rep. James Langevin and Governor Raimondo’s Commission on Disabilities. Frank said that they would be reaching out to Senator Michael McCaffrey as well.
In a portion of their presentation, the family brings up how New York City has recently agreed to bring all of its roughly 162,000 sidewalk curbs into ADA-compliance – a project that the city has budgeted over $1.5 billion for over the next 10 years, and includes plans to hire 500 additional DOT workers in that span to bring the whole city up to code.
“Warwick is not New York City,” Frank said, meaning that the city should be more than capable of bringing its comparably minuscule number of sidewalk curbs into compliance with federal law.
He stressed that the family is not bringing suit against the city or seeking any financial rewards of their own, they just want to see the issues addressed and given proper attention. He did say that any of these multiple obstructions could potentially lead to a lawsuit if an individual was hurt or killed as a result of them.
“Ultimately, this Access Markers report brings into focus a simple solution for these many risks, impediments and costs that result from the poor condition of Warwick Avenue’s sidewalks and curb-cuts,” the report concludes. “We must fix them…not just for the benefit of people with disabilities, but for all citizens of Warwick and the State of Rhode Island.”