To the Editor:
It’s been fifty years since President Nixon signed into law an act that recognized the need to make the seemingly-simple process of getting around possible for everyone. In 1990, President George Bush signed even stronger legislation into law: the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But you’d be forgiven if you weren’t aware these laws applied to Greenwich, because after half a century, it’s still a struggle for some to cross the street, go to school, and enjoy our beautiful parks.
Getting to class should not be the hardest subject
Did you know that 80 percent of Greenwich Public Schools do not meet ADA requirements (according to District Head of Facilities Dan Watson)?
20 of 27 town athletic fields in Greenwich are not ADA compliant, according to consultants hired by the town to evaluate our playing fields and make recommendations on improvements.
Our shameful portfolio of inaccessible facilities includes sidewalks, intersections, marinas and more.
A look at the record suggests the buck stops at the Republican-controlled Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET), whose members have refused to allocate adequate funds towards these necessary improvements. In effect, leaving Greenwich residents with disabilities unable to go about their daily lives in our public spaces.
It’s gotten so bad, concerned citizens have been forced to lodge complaints with federal authorities, and even take legal action.
In 2020, a filing with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights prompted an investigation into ADA compliance at Old Greenwich School (OGS). The 120-year old building has no elevator, and neither its main entrance nor gym entrance are accessible, among other ADA compliance issues. Teachers have even been tasked with carrying children on crutches up and down the stairs in an effort to get students between floors.
In 2021, the Board of Education (BOE) reached a settlement in the case, providing a timeline for bringing the school system into compliance. But it’s not that the BOE didn’t know or care about these pressing issues. Three years earlier, they detailed maintenance and renovation needs for our aging stock of school buildings, including bringing the schools into compliance with ADA law.
But the Republican-controlled BET has failed to allocate needed funding to meet ADA requirements in the timeline required by the consent decree.
Instead, in their efforts to spend as little as possible on our schools, Republican BET members have proposed bare bones fixes such as adding an elevator to OGS or Julian Curtiss School. What they either ignore or remain inexcusably ignorant of is that simply adding an elevator doesn’t bring a building into ADA compliance.
It’s not a walk in the park
When the town of Greenwich learned that its playing fields weren’t accessible, the Parks and Rec department did not bother requesting funding from the BET to meet ADA requirements. Perhaps they knew that the Republican BET’s budget guidelines would not allow it.
Rejecting free money
In 2022, Greenwich was awarded $2.8 million by the Connecticut Department of Transportation to implement a municipal improvement plan for several Greenwich Avenue intersections to improve pedestrian safety. The plan would have significantly decreased crossing times–an improvement applauded by disability rights advocates.
All Greenwich had to do was say “yes” to the money.
And yet, a certain far-right contingency in the RTM flexed all of its political muscle to kill the plan, and they succeeded. First Selectman Camillo lamented that now any improvements on Greenwich Avenue “will come out of our pockets.” We had a plan, and we had the money to implement it. Why are local leaders putting a stop to needed progress in our town?
Subsequently, when the Department of Public Works requested $450,000 for its ADA sidewalk accessibility program in this year’s budget, Republican BET budget committee chair Leslie Tarkington suggested that the request be slashed by 45 percent.
In January, the U.S. District Attorney intervened in response to a complaint about lack of access for people with disabilities at the Byram Marina. Ironically, the complaint was filed by the father of Greenwich’s appointed harbormaster, Paul Cappiali Jr., whose job it is to manage all aspects of boating safety.
Eventually, the town reached a settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and agreed to create five accessible boat slips at the marina, plus accessible routes to access them.
Does the Republican-controlled BET not consider the federally-protected rights of disabled residents worth taxpayer funds? Do they consider waiting to be sued a “cost of doing business”? If so, it is a cynical manipulation of its own disabled residents.
Greenwich deserves leaders with vision and responsibility. Leaders who fight for all members of our town. This November, vote for all six Democratic candidates for the BET. It’s not out of the question to think that if he were here today, George Bush might vote the same.