American cities are a nightmare for disabled people. Coronavirus is giving us a chance to change that

Protesters at a rally in Manhattan in January. Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images

Over the past few decades in San Francisco, the benches dotting parks and sidewalks around the city have been disappearing. The trend, in one of the most expensive housing markets on the planet, is a cruel turn of policy and planning aimed at disposing of underhoused community members. For Maddy Ruvolo, a disabled urban planner focused on transportation access for the disability community in San Francisco, the trend is infuriating but familiar.

Ruvolo lives with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a condition which for her causes lightheadedness and fatigue. As a result, she often requires a place to sit down. But thanks to planning that’s overlooked her needs, she’s left with a city that’s at best ambivalent about her wellness and safety, and at worst seemingly designed to make her life more difficult.

“Disabled people face incredible hostility in public space,” Ruvolo tells Mic. “Accessibility is so often an afterthought, treated as a bonus or extension of sympathy rather than a necessity. I think non-disabled people frequently have no idea what disabled lives are like.”

For folks with disabilities living in urban environments, Ruvolo’s experience is the rule rather than the exception. A growing field of academics feel that modern cities and the planning that couches them are projects of capital rather than community. As the coronavirus pandemic forces an immediate recasting of our cities through the lens of public health and safety, experts predict that urban planning and design will change radically in the coming years. This presents an opportunity for our future cities to be planned, designed, and built around principles of inclusion, accessibility, and community. But for that to happen, people with disabilities need to be in charge of the blueprints, backed up by people with the institutional positioning to ensure the plans are executed.

“If we continue to plan and design our cities as though everyone is 30 years old, active, and non-disabled, the result will continue to be cities that are biased, non-accessible, non-inclusive, and well, just damn dumb.” - Darren Bates

We’ve already seen myriad examples of how the pandemic has accelerated changes to accessibility and inclusion that were once treated as arbitrary or fringe, like work-from-home provisions, live-streamed events, and expanded home delivery services. For Dan Ashworth, who lives with cerebral palsy in Oakville, Ontario, the changes have gone hand-in-hand with principles of civic engagement and social justice that previously weren’t extended to him. In June, when a judge handed down verdicts in the case of two white brothers (one of them an officer with Toronto Police Services) who brutally beat a Black teenager in late 2016, 20,000 people tuned into the YouTube livestream of the reading. Ashworth was one of them.

“It did make a big impact seeing firsthand in real time how shit the justice system is,” he says. Ashworth is fed up with the glacial pace of government response to and support for disabled folks during the pandemic, likening it to a scene in the second Lord of the Rings film where a group of trees takes hours to utter greetings. “At least in Lord of the Rings, when the trees saw what the orcs were doing, they’re like, ‘Oh shit, we need to do something,’” says Ashworth. “It’s like that analogy but if the trees saw [that] and were like, ‘Well that’s not really affecting us just yet.’”

There’s a tendency to believe that a human-centered ethic informs our urban planning and design practices, but many planners, designers, and people with disabilities say that’s not the case. In fact, ambivalence toward inclusivity and accessibility in city planning is a tradition that stretches back to the earliest human settlements. “Transportation systems have been, since the beginning of history, designed to move people who have wealth, who can own a cart, who can own a carriage and horses to draw the carriage,” Tom Angotti, Professor Emeritus of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College, tells Mic. “That extends right up until today, [with] who owns a car, who can hire a taxi.”

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Angotti says that design and urban planning are mutually-dependent practices with implicit and explicit biases. “I always approach design issues not as strictly physical design,” he says. “They all have social, political, and economic consequences.”

In New York City, where Angotti lives, 20% of land is occupied by infrastructure for vehicles. Angotti calls this an example of the widespread “privatization of public space;” meanwhile, transit station elevators—often absent from many stops—that service people who use mobility aids are regularly out of service. Even New York City’s Open Streets program disproportionately benefits wealthier communities. These are examples of planning practices that contravene French sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city.”

“People have unequal access and rights to public space and to the city, because of policy that’s based on individual rights,” says Angotti. “[That policy basis] is also why we’re the leading country in the world with COVID-19 cases.”

Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto, tells Mic the pandemic is a disruption of our assumptions that can be used “to do something more transformative than simply returning back to the status quo.” During the pandemic, Treviranus says, “we have some greater awareness of how we either collectively fail or collectively thrive.”

This puts forth an imperative for city planning: “Find out who has the greatest difficulty or is most excluded in the system that you’re planning, and bring them into the discussions, and prioritize what they need,” says Treviranus, emphasizing that this describes not just having a seat at the table, but “having some say in what the table looks like.”

“When our processes are guided by people with lived experiences of struggle and adversity," Treviranus says, "our systems will function in times of struggle and adversity.”

Jake Walker, an Atlanta-based musician who lives with spinal muscular atrophy, type II and uses a wheelchair, tells Mic this participation would circumvent “bone-headed” planning that allows, for example, a streetlight post to be placed squarely in the way of a sidewalk ramp. “I can't think of someone more equipped to answer the problems of accessibility in urban spaces than individuals who have had to adapt and navigate the traditionally inaccessible spaces as a survival mechanism,” Walker says. “Having disabled voices in the rooms where city planning is done would create a lot less awkward accessibility issues.”

These solutions could hardly be simpler, but barriers to access enforced by capitalist planning mean that they’re difficult to implement. Folks with disabilities are often involved in token or minimal capacities, and with little understanding of the breadth of experience of disability, planners will sometimes account for a mobility impairment, but not for a plurality of visible and invisible disability experiences.

“As a Mad artist, I’m so hyper aware of how ableist our design is in terms of how we set up our society,” Syrus Marcus Ware, a Toronto-based visual artist, activist, scholar, academic, and core-team member of Black Lives Matter Toronto tells Mic. For Ware and other Black folks, especially those with disabilities, defunding and abolishing police forces is part of inclusive city planning. He points out that the ways in which our community safety and security are planned and designed assume that police are there to keep us safe. “For Mad people, that is absolutely not true, because Mad people don’t get to be mad in public space.”

Tacio Philip Sansonovski / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

These conditions are compounded by other systems of oppression enforced by white supremacy. These systems make Black Americans more likely to experience chronic health issues, and less likely to receive adequate care—all while living at exponentially-heightened risk of being killed by police.

“Black people are most likely to be harmed or killed by the hands of a cop,” Nila Morton, an artist and blogger based in Greenville, South Carolina, tells Mic. Morton lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy called Ullrich—the only person in her state to experience it. “There’s so many stories of Black people with disabilities, especially mental disabilities, being shot by the police… But white people who have done mass shootings been taken into custody and get labeled ‘mentally ill.’”

Accounting for these systems and their oppressions in urban planning aren’t remotely close to standard practice yet. “I’m not aware of any city in the world planned, designed, or co-created with the disability community,” Darren Bates, an Austin-based global inclusion strategist and founder of Smart Cities Library, tells Mic. “We need a paradigm shift in urban planning and design for the 21st century. Until cities co-create communities with disability-led organizations and people with lived experience of disability, accessible and inclusive cities will remain a goal and not a reality.

“If we continue to plan and design our cities as though everyone is 30 years old, active, and non-disabled, the result will continue to be cities that are biased, non-accessible, non-inclusive, and well, just damn dumb.”

Planners who experience disability like Ruvolo suggest working with local organizations and mutual aid networks that center BIPOC disabled people. Ruvolo says the Bay Area’s Disability Justice Culture Club is an example of “the kind of work that planners should embrace if we truly want to create inclusive, accessible communities.”

Indeed, for this vision to become a reality, sustained collective organizing is required in the face of disaster capitalism. Angotti looks to countries that have successfully minimized coronavirus’s impact as models for organizing around inclusive and accessible planning. Who’s doing well? “It’s everywhere in the world where solidarity beat out individual action,” he says. “That’s what we don’t have in our everyday urban lives.”

Ware, too, points to the community organizing and solidarity that’s led to the radical movements pushing for change right now. “Now is the time for dreaming,” says Ware. “This is a time of imagining. That’s how you get there. This is a revolutionary movement, and revolution is a process.”

For instruction moving forward, Ware refers to and paraphrases the Combahee River Collective’s landmark 1977 statement on Black feminism to highlight the fact that inclusive planning benefits not one person, but a collective: “If you make the world safer for Black trans women with Disabilities, we’re making the world safer for everyone.”