Dust Up in San Francisco over Wheelchair Ramp

San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Michela Alioto-Pier is vowing to sue the city unless it builds a wheelchair ramp to enable her to reach the board chamber's main podium. The city says the cost, estimated to top $1 million, is prohibitive.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In San Francisco, one local politician is finding you can't navigate city hall. She's in a dispute with her colleagues over where she can and cannot go in her wheelchair. She wants a ramp.

But as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, her fellow board members say it costs too much.

RICHARD GONZALES: Back in 1992, Michela Alioto-Pier was working in the White House as a domestic policy adviser to then-Vice President Al Gore. Paralyzed since a childhood skiing accident, she found parts of the West Wing inaccessible, and Alioto-Pier threatened to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Ms. MICHELA ALIOTO-PIER (Member, San Francisco Board of Supervisors): It was a little bit of a fight, without question, but they simply put in a lift. And when they realized it was the right thing to do, they just did it.

GONZALES: Now, Alioto-Pier is a San Francisco supervisor. As she wheels into the ornate chambers of the Board of Supervisors, she points to the president's podium which sits about three and a half feet above the floor.

Ms. ALIOTO-PIER: The three and a half feet is a significant mountain in this particular instance. It needs to be lowered significantly.

GONZALES: Lowering the podium would accommodate a ramp that would give her, and any other disabled person, access.

Ms. ALIOTO-PIER: It's the people's room. There is not a room in San Francisco more important or more needed, in my opinion, to be accessible to every member of San Francisco citizenry. We should be able to have a member of the disabled population sit behind the president's desk. And right now, that is not something that can happen.

GONZALES: But recently, the board rejected the plan to lower the podium and build that ramp. Board President Aaron Peskin is among those who balked at the million-dollar price tag at a time when San Francisco is in a budget crisis.

Mr. AARON PESKIN (President, San Francisco Board of Supervisor): For that kind of money, San Francisco can do 70 curb ramps that would serve hundreds of individuals as compared to a sole individual. Money is always scarce. And when you have money, you should really use it for the benefit of the many.

GONZALES: Alioto-Pier disputes the million-dollar estimate. She says the 10-foot ramp would cost only about $100,000 and the rest would be spent on related renovations to the chambers. Meanwhile, the notion that the ramp is being built for only one disabled person rankle some. Larry Paridis is the executive director of the Berkeley-based Disability Right Advocates.

Mr. LARRY PARIDIS (Executive Director, Disability Rights Advocates): The classic strategy that the city of San Francisco is following is to basically blame the victim, to make Ms. Alioto-Pier feel guilty for asking that her civil rights be met. And it's clearly a symbol that matters in a city that cares about civil rights, that the podium in which the president of the board of supervisors sits should be accessible.

GONZALES: The current board president, Aaron Peskin, doesn't use a podium. He presides from a lower clerk seat that is virtually eye-level with his colleagues. And he says the president's podium is a relic no one should use.

Mr. PESKIN: And it is my position that both as a financial as well as an architectural solution, that it be forever abandoned and become an inaccessible architectural element, and that the board of supervisors conduct its business at the same level where all members have equal access to one another.

GONZALES: Supervisor Alioto-Pier says that's no compromise at all.

Ms. ALIOTO-PIER: We certainly don't keep the black water fountains and the white water fountains as a nice reminder of what the civil rights movement was like in the '60s. And we should, in the same regard, not be keeping up these physical barriers to the disabled because it sends the same message.

GONZALES: And having once threatened to sue the White House over wheelchair access, Alioto-Pier says she's prepared to take her San Francisco colleagues to court. Meanwhile, Mayor Gavin Newsom supports her and insists that the ramp will be built.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: