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Notebook: When the personal is political

Monday, September 23, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

What started out as a reporter’s normal trip to East Austin to cover the Arts Commission became something of an adventure that provided an unexpected look at an accessibility issue in some of the city’s newer office spaces.

Monitor reporter Chad Swiatecki, who uses a wheelchair, planned last Monday to cover the meeting that was being held at offices used by the Economic Development Department located just off Ben White Boulevard. Rather than the easy access he’s encountered during years of visiting city offices, the EDD space was 1) difficult to find; 2) located an unreasonable distance from disabled parking spaces; and 3) in a portion of the building with no apparent wheelchair access.

After 40 minutes of searching and enlisting the help of an EDD staffer to show him a “back way” in – that would be challenging for anyone with a mobility issue – he was able to cover the meeting as planned.

Having taken photos and compiled other visuals, Swiatecki recounted the situation 24 hours later in a Twitter story (click on the blue link at the bottom of the tweet to view the entire thread).

It didn’t take long before the thread started getting some attention, including from Council Member Greg Casar.

In an email later in the day, Casar connected Swiatecki with Alex Gale, the interim director of real estate services, who wrote back that the leased building “is ADA compliant per City code, and that “we are continuously working with the landlord on fixing issues including badge access, push buttons and signage among other items. We will also be working with departments at the facility to provide maps to their clients and constituents to better guide visitors to parking and entrances to help make things clearer and discuss other changes and costs associated with them. We want to improve functionality as best we can.”

While Swiatecki realized that city staffers have dozens of responsibilities to juggle from day to day, Gale’s response wasn’t what he was looking for, prompting him to email back:

“Alex, I’m going to be 100 percent candid here. That building might fit the letter of ADA accessibility standards (and from my visual appraisal of the other city departments there besides EDD it would appear there are no major issues accessing them), but from a visitor experience perspective, for someone with a disability who would need to visit the EDD offices it is grossly lacking.

“I would honestly like to be shown the shortest, most accessible route to those offices from a disabled parking space. As I illustrated in my online thread, the spaces near the consulate office around the corner from the EDD entrance are a considerable distance (including what seems like an excessively winding ramp). And the ‘loading dock’ option on the other side of the building is also lengthy for someone in a wheelchair (or facing some other mobility issue) to travel to the EDD office.

“If there’s a third option I’m unaware of, I’d love to know. To be clear: my issue is that someone with a disability needing to visit the EDD offices in that building would have no good options to get there without some assistance. And that is even overlooking the confusing signage issues which should be fixed pretty easily and, I would hope, quickly.

“My expectation is that this situation will be looked at from the perspective of someone with limited mobility, a step that seems to have not been taken with regard to EDD offices and how they are situated on the grounds of this new development. We often hear in coverage of legislative proceedings or court cases about the problem of 0f ‘the letter of the law versus the intent of the law’ not lining up, and we are staring straight in the face of that scenario right now. What’s there is not good enough. I will gladly help you or other city staff members in any way possible to come up with a solution.”

In subsequent emails, Gale and Swiatecki worked on setting up a meeting with EDD Director Veronica Briseño in the next two weeks to look at the issue closely and see how it can be solved. In a chance run-in while simultaneously exiting City Hall on Thursday, Gale and Swiatecki discussed the problems with that site in general, and how the attention paid to it (along with Casar’s interest) will help put pressure on the landlord to make the needed changes soon.

This isn’t an issue that will rise to the level of normal coverage here at the Monitor, but keep an eye on the Notebook for further updates as warranted.

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