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Being Disabled, Getting Around DC Huge Challenge to Overcome

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the December issue 2017 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

“Parking for the Disabled is a nightmare.  First, we need clarification. Second, the parking enforcers need both education and be tested.  Third, we need more disability parking.  Why can’t older folks with disabilities rent parking spaces in front of their homes just as restaurants rent public space?”  –James, Dupont Circle.

 “I have to use Metrorail since I cannot park.  What is it with this chronic elevator breakdown. Is it the equipment?  The repair people? Why are seemingly healthy people using these elevators causing me to wait, and wait.” –Debbie, Logan Circle.

The U.S. Census Bureau is estimating that DC’s population is 681,000 and of that 12% (81,720) are over the age of 65. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Disabilities estimates that one in five Americans have a disability; that finding would mean upwards to  136,200 in DC.

A recent study by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood declared that compared with other similar cities, DC has “more buses and more trains running more hours on more routes.” So, how is the system accommodating the disabled? Based on interviews, generally very well. The interviewees loved the kneeling buses and the new Metro rail cars with clear announcements and rotating signs that remind riders of the seats reserved for the elderly and disabled.

By an interview conducted through an exchange of emails with Terry Owens, the public information officer of the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT), she responded to the following questions:
InTowner: Based on [our] research, appx. 11% of DC residents are classified as disabled. Is that your understanding as well?

DDOT: The principal source of data on the U.S. population is the U.S. Census. The latest report on disability statistics comes from the 2015 American Community Survey which found that 11.5% of the District population are persons with disabilities. For the United States as a whole, 12.8% of the population lives with a disability. The 2016 Disability stats should become available very soon.

InTowner: Sidewalk ramps. Residents seem happy with the number of sidewalk ramps, esp those on the corner instead of 2, saving about $4,000 per corner. Have you heard this satisfaction as well?

DDOT: The general finding is all pedestrians prefer to have separate curb access for each direction that a pedestrian crosses at a corner. This is also the recommendation of the U.S. Access Board. It costs DDOT approximately $880 for the construction of a typical curb ramp. However, for a ramp to be constructed at a corner it must conform to the existing conditions, which frequently requires additional sidewalk work to ensure that the finished curb ramp complies fully with the requirements of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].

InTowner: What can residents do? DC seems to be socially conscious and willing to assist in making it easier for the disabled to get around. Anymore advice as to what we as residents can do? Encouraging all of us to shovel promptly sidewalk snow might be one example.

DDOT: It is incumbent upon the property owner to keep the sidewalk adjacent to their property in a safe and secure condition. This means keeping it clear of leaves, tree branches, and debris, clearing snow and ice of the sidewalk, curb ramps, and bus stops in the winter, and following appropriate safety protocols for temporary encroachment when undertaking ordinary property maintenance or moving activities. It would also be very helpful to DDOT if any concerned pedestrian would take a few minutes to report to 311 any unsafe conditions or concerns that they may observe on the public sidewalks.

InTowner: Disability Parking Spaces. It seems quite challenging to create a disabled parking space. Any way to ease this? But, once they are created, they seem to be there a very long time, even after the elderly or disabled have moved on or moved out.

DDOT: There is a formal process of qualifying for a reserved parking space for a resident with a disability, which again is set forth in the DC Municipal Regulations, Title 18, Chapter 27, Special Parking Privileges for Physically Disabled Persons.

InTowner: Red Top Parking Disabled. Most of the folks [we] have talked with do not understand the new Red Top parking procedures. [We] wonder how this could be clarified.

DDOT: DDOT has an excellent page on its website that explains the Red Top Meter Program. There are also brochures available for distribution or for the asking that explains the program.


By far, the number one complaint by the disabled and elderly is sidewalk closings which seem to be unplanned and haphazard. Often one will be halfway down the block before one discovers that the sidewalk is closed. Construction and moving companies seemingly get no permit to close the sidewalks. Instead, they put up handmade signs and effectively close the sidewalks.


It is helpful that Metrorail has designated seats but how many people obey the signs. Not many, especially school students. Maybe Metro should mimic Atlanta’s Marta rail system which provides constant announcements reminding about its designated seats for the elderly and handicapped.

Special Challenges for the Hearing Impaired

A hearing-impaired friend in Dupont Circle relates the challenges he faces when transiting DC — whether on Metro, by taxi, Uber, bicycle, or on foot. A major challenge with hearing loss is understanding speech in noisy environments. He says that use of reflective surfaces and loud music in restaurants and other venues provides particular challenges, even when he’s wearing hearing assist devices; but the din from traffic and car horns, helicopters, and construction sites is often too much competition for verbal communication. Because hearing impairment shows no physical signs of disability, communication in any noisy environment (including public and commercial transportation) usually requires a verbal request to accommodate his disability, which (once they’re aware) many people will accommodate — at least temporarily.

Many District residents are resigned to enduring excessive levels of noise in their neighborhoods as an inevitable burden of city life, but there are things they can do to mitigate the burden.

Although the DC government imposes a noise curfew for construction between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., construction crews and delivery vehicles arrive early and idle their vehicles, trash trucks rumble to their destinations, impatient drivers honk their horns, motorcycles and mopeds gun their engines, automobiles with aftermarket mufflers can be heard for miles, and even gardeners with gas-powered blowers add to the din that can have serious health effects on residents trying to rest, or at least have a moment of peace.

District residents who encounter excessive noise, especially when in violation of noise ordinances, can file a complaint through the Mayor’s online 311 system. Violators can be fined up to $500 and 90 days jail –- as provided by the Disorderly Conduct Amendment Act of 2010.

The DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) cites DCMR 20, Sec. 2700 which states that it “is the declared public policy of the District that every person is entitled to ambient noise levels that are not detrimental to life, health, and enjoyment of his or her property. It is hereby declared that excessive or unnecessary noises within the District are a menace to the welfare and prosperity of the residents and businesses of the District. It is the declared public policy of the District to reduce the ambient noise level in the District to promote public health, safety, welfare and the peace and quiet of the inhabitants of the District, and to facilitate the enjoyment of the natural attraction of the District.”

It has been suggested that the District should also include noise regulations as part of the motor vehicle regulations pertaining to inspections, buses and trucks – specifically banning the use of what is known as aftermarket mufflers that bypass the catalytic converters. These are mufflers that are electric or cable activated, thereby transforming cars and motorcycles to sound like a race cars.

Handicapped Parking

It is challenging to get a designated handicapped street parking space. DDOT examines the availability of street parking and whether there is off-street parking. They need to also examine the potential of stair climbing that may impede the ease of off-street parking.

Then there is a problem of timely rescinding any parking and signage if the person has died or the disability has been overcome. DDOT depends on being informed by neighborhood residents when it seems that the agency is unaware of changed circumstances. Unfortunately, this ad hoc arrangement appears to result in many outdated signs designating reserved handicapped parking spaces.

As an experiment for this article, one Columbia Heights resident used the Mayor’s 311 online system to state that a particular handicapped designated space was no longer necessary since the handicapped person had moved. Here is the response:

“Dear Resident, Your request for Parking Enforcement at [redacted] OTIS PLACE NW,WASHINGTON,DC,USA,20010 was completed on 11/15/2017 and has been closed by Department of Public Works. A comment has been added to your Service Request 17-00642557. Service Request Status: Closed. Case Closure Comment: DPW Officer observed location, no violation.”

It is clear that the 311 service request was directed to the wrong agency; that is, parking enforcement of the Department of Public Works rather than DDOT which actually puts up and takes down these signs.


Greg, a customer of Soho Tea and Coffee at 22ndand P Streets, NW, reminisced about the “old days” when disabilities were hidden and not accommodated. This resulted in people with disabilities being confined, not being able to work and feeling out of the mainstream. Things have changed for the better as can be noted as by U.S. News & World Report now rating DC as #10 in its Best Places to Retire category; DC also has been rated highly for public transportation, though well down in housing affordability.

Creativity is one of the keys to successful accommodation of the increasing numbers and variety of those with disabilities. One also wonders about the role of driverless cars; thinking about wheelchair accessibility, will their designs help or hinder those with disabilities. And what about walk and don’t walk signals; should tactile and audio interfacing for the visually impaired be added?

At the same time, there are dangers to creativity. The developers of The Wharf residential, commercial and mixed-use project along Maine Avenue on the southwest waterfront did not want “clean lines” but instead what they call “city chaos” –- manifested by having little ups and downs of the sidewalks and the use of uneven bricks and Belgian blocks. However, this creates problems for people with disabilities, especially for wheelchairs.

On balance, the District excels in accommodating those with disabilities and most residents seem to think DC is generally living up to these aspirations.

*Larry Ray is a former president of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association (NCHCA), previously served two terms as a commissioner on the Columbia Heights ANC just south of Petworth, and serves as Next Door Coordinator for NE Columbia Heights.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.