Pekin has a new plan to fix ADA problems. Here's why it's needed
After suffering a life-altering workplace injury 15 years ago, longtime Pekin resident Perry Martin became increasingly aware of the numerous obstacles to mobility and access throughout the city.
“I lived on the old side of Pekin, and at the time I was in a wheelchair when I first got home; I was paralyzed from the waist down and never supposed to walk again,” said Martin, a former ironworker. “It was a nice day, and I had been in the hospital for seven weeks, so we went outside. I went down the sidewalk where I lived at, and there was no way to get off the sidewalk.
“So I went down the driveway and, of course being the old part of town the street’s been built up, and it was like a gutter, a natural gutter, from the driveway there. I went off with my wheelchair and I tipped forward, about catapulted myself out.”
Martin’s immediate recognition of Pekin’s deficiencies in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) motivated him to get involved. Currently a board member with the nonprofit Advocates for Access, Martin initially served on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities until it dissolved in 2020.
“The city people, they really didn't understand the need and where – you know, they're not disabled, so they really don't understand, like I didn't understand before, the need of curb cuts until somebody tells them, ‘hey, we need a curb cut here; this needs [to be] fixed here,'” he said.
A lawsuit filed against Pekin in 2018 claimed the city’s pedestrian infrastructure did not meet ADA accessibility requirements. In November 2022, the city entered into a consent decree calling for $1.5 million in ADA upgrades by next May and an additional annual minimum of $250,000 for at least 10 years.
Martin, who was not involved in the lawsuit, says he’s glad it’s led to a positive outcome. But he adds the city was already making its best effort prior to the consent decree.
“The city engineers at that time, or anybody, would come to our committee and ask for our information and our input on where they thought – because at the time, they were only getting money from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), and only a certain amount of money per year, to go and do curb cuts," Marin said.
“So we went out to determine where we thought would be the best places at the time with the money they had to do these things. Like out on Cook Street, they built a new big park out there but there were no curb cuts for anybody to get across the street. So we told them about that, and they went over there and put a bunch of curb cuts in on the corners.”
Pekin officials have a draft version of their updated ADA Transition Plan posted on the website. Earlier this week, they held an open house to gather public input to add to the plan.
“The city's had multiple versions of an ADA Transition Plan in the past. This is just our newest copy of our five-year plan and what we are going to attempt to do to help those who have disabilities and create better access throughout the city,” said Josie Esker, Pekin’s city engineer who also serves as its ADA accessibility coordinator.
Esker says every municipality needs an ADA Transition Plan, and it should be updated every five years as federal ADA standards and specifications change.
“Our transition plan ties into that consent decree, although the transition plan should have been done regardless of that,” Esker said. “We're just trying to do the best we can with what we have to make sure people have access, but also a way to let the city know what they need. So we're hoping that this creates more of an open dialogue between the city and people who need to use those facilities to get from point A to point B.”
With more than 300 miles of sidewalks in Pekin, Esker says the city is faced with a major undertaking.
“It's a big task to make those 100% ADA compliant. You have some that are, to the untrained eye, they look great; they might not be compliant,” she said. “We're focusing more on the areas that are in really poor condition: the big trip hazards, and the bigger routes like Court Street, Derby Street, some of our main corridors that we know there's a lot of pedestrians that use those sidewalks.”
Martin says it’s easy for many people to disregard access and mobility issues because it’s not something that directly impacts their lives.
“People don't realize what people with disabilities go through until it happens to them or somebody in their family gets disabled,” Martin said. “Until I got hurt, I never even knew what a curb cut was and there was none around (where he used to live). I always thought, ‘these people in the wheelchairs over there, they just went around the block.’ It was because they couldn't go anywhere else; they couldn't get off the street. Until I got hurt; then I started finding out what life is because of the disability – not only curb cuts, but bathrooms, parking lots, entrances into buildings and stores.”
Jeannine McAllister is the executive director at Advocates for Access, based in Peoria Heights. The organization serves Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Fulton counties as one of the 22 nonprofits in Illinois’ network of Centers for Independent Living.
“We're at the table on a lot of things,” said McAllister, pointing to programs that help transition people out of nursing homes, build wheelchair ramps on residences, provide rental assistance and amplified telephone service, and working with various government agencies to guarantee disability concerns are considered.
“We believe people with a disability should choose where they want to live, so we're making sure that all people in our community have what they need to choose to live the life they live.”
McAllister says she applauds Pekin’s rededicated push for improved access for people with disabilities.
“So many people in different areas of our community might see an issue or see a need, and then they don't move forward; they don't come up with a plan,” McAllister said. “So tackling these issues that have been identified, the next step is: what's your plan? Because so many people will say, ‘Yeah, this is an issue, that's an issue. Yeah, people can't get in and out.’ But then they don't go a step further to say, ‘how do fix this for the community?’”
McAllister says there’s many considerations that go into achieving ADA compliance.
“It is more than just, ‘Can I get in and out of the building?’ That's a big part. But you're looking at the number of handicap parking spaces that are there," McAllister said. "You're looking at the surface, are there potholes? Is the lip too high for the ramp to get in? Is the ramp built to compliance? Are the doors too heavy? Are the doors wide enough?”
“I always like when we go and do outreach in a high school class. You talk about looking at a sidewalk, you talk about where a ramp is in a building. I'll just use a gas station (as an example), they might have the cutout and ramp to get into the building. But then they have water, they have salt, they have logs outside, where a wheelchair actually couldn't get through there.”
Esker says the ADA Transition Plan sets out a schedule for addressing as many of the various sidewalk issues as possible, from uneven sections, obstacles in the path, overly steep slopes and missing or non-compliant curb ramps.
“Anyone who doesn't know anything about ADA can see that if you have a foreign trip hazard, nobody in a wheelchair is going to be able to get past that. So the trip hazards are going to be a big focus of what we're trying to remediate in the next five years,” Esker said. “ADA ramps, getting up to the sidewalks from the streets – we have some areas where we have a six-inch curb. Obviously that's not ADA compliant or accessible, and we'll be working on those areas as well.”
So how will the city prioritize which areas will get addressed in what order?
“Some of it is condition. We want to do areas that are in poor condition first, but we also want to make sure we're not doing a sidewalk at the end of a dead end instead of a sidewalk (where) there are 20,000 cars a day and we have hundreds of pedestrians that use it,” Esker said. “So we're definitely focusing on bigger roads that have more pedestrians that use them. But we also are basing it on condition and where we know we have higher density populations with mobility disabilities.”
Esker said the city’s focus is on the next five years of ADA improvements, although the transition plan draft outlines 10 years of anticipated construction.
“We want to make sure we're thinking further ahead than five years,” she said. “But we know we're going to be adjusting that plan in five years again, and reprioritizing based on the needs of the population at that time. We might have people that move into the city, people that move out of the city, and we might have things that change with condition or just what the public needs.”
Esker adds that the biggest challenge to implementing the ADA Transition Plan will be fitting it in alongside Pekin’s other needs.
“Our streets aren't in great condition, our curbs need some work, our storm sewers need some work,” she said. “There's a lot of infrastructure needs, and sidewalks (are) just one of those. If you have nice sidewalks but the roads impassable between them, then you know you didn't do your job. So trying to balance all of the needs at one time, I would say, is probably any city's biggest task.”
Martin says mobility and access concerns will remain a constant need.
“There’s more disabled people, and there’s going to have to be more light brought on the subject to make (people) aware,” he said. “From 15 years ago when I got hurt, it’s a whole lot better now than it was then.”