Access Denied: How the City of Chicago’s Built Environment Fails to Meet the Reasonable Accommodation Standard

Rory Svoboda

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022 

Most everyone knows how painful a rush hour commute in Chicago can be –– from cramming into packed buses and train cars to navigating construction and busy streets. Now, imagine navigating that same commute without access to your nearest L stop or waiting fifteen minutes for a bus only to find you’ll have to wait for another because there’s a crowd of people standing in the area designated for wheelchair users. This is a reality that many Chicago residents with disabilities must overcome to go about their day-to-day lives. According to a 2018 community survey, over 520,000 Chicagoland residents, about 10.1 percent of the City’s total population, have a disability. Unfortunately, the city of Chicago’s transit system is not adequately accessible for this community.

What has Chicago done to improve general accessibility?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) first became law in 1990. It is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life –– from jobs and schools to transportation and public and private places that are open to the general public. Generally, the city has made progress improving ADA accessibility for Chicago residents. Effective July 1, 2017, all Chicago businesses that serve the general public were required to be accessible to people with all types of disabilities. Unlike some ADA accessibility scenarios, this compliance requirement was for existing and new businesses with no “grandfathered” in provisions.

Additionally, since 2006, the Chicago Department of Transportation has installed thousands of sidewalk ramps throughout the city that comply with the ADA. There is a 3-1-1 site where individuals can submit work requests for things like ramp installations, however, no timeline is offered on how long accessibility measures like this take to be addressed. The city also touts a 100 percent accessible bus system that serves more than 12,000 stops across 140 routes. While the buses are equipped with numerous accessibility features, there remains the practical issue of overcrowding that can extinguish accessibility. Notably, both CTA buses and trains are all equipped with audible and visual announcements of stops and other important information, which is critical to those that are hearing or visually impaired. Overall, the city is making strides in accessibility, but there is much more to be done, particularly in transportation.

Where is Chicago falling short?

A 2019 annual report by the Metropolitan Planning Council (“MPC”), which tracks regional transit and infrastructure matters, found that in Chicago, “an uncoordinated patchwork of accessible transportation services, missing sidewalks, and poor information force individuals to minimize travel, rely on friends and family, or resort to expensive private providers.” In 2018, of the city’s 145 rail stations, forty two were not ADA compliant. While the city has plans to improve this situation, it is still an issue people with disabilities face today.

Adam Ballard, housing and transportation policy analyst at Access Living, explained, “the Oak Park area is almost completely unserved by any accessible stations aside from Harlem and Lake.” Access from the West Side and into Oak Park ought to be a priority. Even as Chicago aims to improve transit accessibility, there are missed opportunities and renovations taking priority. For instance, the recent $17 million renovation of the Belmont Blue Line station on the O’Hare branch included a large canopy, but no elevators. Even if the station is accessible, the trains themselves pose problems for some users with disabilities because while the train cars have areas for wheelchair users to park, securement straps/tie downs are not available.

What should be done?

People with disabilities face unemployment at disproportionate rates and, in Chicago, have a poverty rate twice as high as people without disabilities. Mobility plays a key role in employment and as a result, the city needs to prioritize accessible transit. In July of 2018, the city announced it’s All Stations Accessibility Program. Ironically enough, this twenty-year plan’s acronym is ASAP. The purpose of the plan is to make the remaining forty-two rail stations fully accessible over the next two decades. Ballard attributes the lengthy execution to how the city’s funding sources work explaining, “there’s only so much the CTA can do”. While many Chicagoans can understand the politicking that goes into developing the city’s budget, accessibility must be a priority and ought to be dealt with expeditiously. The city could sacrifice aesthetic projects, like the Belmont Blue Line station mentioned above, for the time being and prioritize the practical need for 100 percent accessible rail stations.

The city also ought to consider creative municipal fundraising. Although looking for revenue outside of the traditional sources –– taxes, tickets, and fines –– may seem like an indictment of the city’s budgeting, it is merely a solution to the reality the city faces. The ASAP plan is estimated to cost $2.1 billion over four phases. The sooner money becomes available, the less time each phase of the plan will take. With the rise of sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, it only makes sense that governments jump on board. This isn’t a new concept. In 2015, the city of Fort Lauderdale, FL raised nearly $80,000 from 51 donors on a crowdfunding platform to build a “swanky dog park”.

Disability affects all of us –– whether you have a disability, know someone with a disability or face a temporary disability. So, a crowdfunding campaign from the city to expedite these projects has real vitality. Ultimately, the city needs to focus its efforts on making Chicago universally accessible for everyone “ASAP” and not 20 years from now.