Progress made for people who use wheelchairs

Q: How does someone in a wheelchair follow the law about using sidewalks if a sidewalk doesn’t have any sort of ramp to make it accessible?

A: This question provides an opportunity to note the progress we’ve made in the area of mobility for people with disabilities. Do we have room to grow? Oh, yeah. Still, the response to this answer as recently as 1989 would be quite different from the answer today.

In order to understand the law, we need to define our terms. In 1959, when Washington law first provided a legal definition for pedestrian it was “any person afoot.” The legal definition of pedestrian was similar to the one in the dictionary: a person going on foot.

For the next 30 years, our state law’s idea of a pedestrian excluded anyone who didn’t have the option to travel with their feet. It’s not that we had one set of traffic laws for walkers and another set for folks traveling by wheelchair; the concept of someone using a wheelchair to get around was absent in our traffic law.

If this question were asked prior to 1990, the answer would have to be, “I don’t know.” Back then, it was unlawful for pedestrians to walk on the roadway wherever sidewalks were provided, but people in wheelchairs weren’t included in the definition of a pedestrian. It’s like we made some assumptions about who our infrastructure was for and then ignored anyone who didn’t fit the assumptions, as if the only possible options to get around were in a car, on a bike, or on your feet.

Sometimes, in order for the law to serve everyone fairly, we need to use legal definitions that go beyond what’s in the dictionary. In 1990 that happened, when the legislature re-defined pedestrian to include anyone “who is using a wheelchair or a means of conveyance propelled by human power other than a bicycle.”

That revision didn’t suddenly open the sidewalk to people who hadn’t been there; it just more accurately reflected people already using them. (In 2003 the law added “power wheelchair.”)

Along with changing the definition of a pedestrian, the rules about sidewalks changed too. The law now states that “where sidewalks are provided but wheelchair access is not available, disabled persons who require such access may walk or otherwise move along and upon an adjacent roadway until they reach an access point in the sidewalk.” In 2019 the law was updated again, changing “disabled persons” to “persons with disabilities.”

I recognize that you asked a question about the law, not about the history of the law, but I think both are important. When we see the law change for the better, it’s a reminder that it’s not a static document. If part of it doesn’t protect the people it should, we can change it.

Along with changing laws, we’ve been gradually changing our infrastructure to be more useful to people with mobility challenges. We’ll have achieved a remarkable milestone when our pedestrian infrastructure has a level of accessibility that no longer requires a caveat in the law permitting wheelchair users to roll on the road because of a poorly designed sidewalk.

Doug Dahl writes a column for this newspaper. He is Target Zero manager with the state Traffic Safety Commission.