Advocates say that blind people or those using wheelchairs may have difficulties making their way through sidewalks that have become crowded under the new “Shared Spaces” program. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Shared spaces can be hard to navigate for disabled residents

Advocates ask city to pay attention to accessibility

The reimagining of public areas into outdoor dining spaces is considered by many to be a necessary step in The City’s reopening process.

But disability advocates say that process may be moving too fast to ensure that city sidewalks remain accessible to everyone.

In a carefully worded letter to city officials dated June 22, groups including LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Walk SF and Senior and Disability Action expressed concern that the “Shared Spaces” program, which allows businesses to make use of sidewalks, parking lots and parking spaces, will be “most successful if the city’s agencies consider the needs of seniors and people with disabilities as the program is developed.”

Bryan Bashin, CEO of the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said that coronavirus responses were causing problems for him even before the “Shared Spaces” program was initiated. Any alterations to public spaces make it increasingly hard for him and other blind and visually impaired people to maintain social distance safely.

“It’s a serious problem,” he said. “The social measures that start putting people in unusual places, like sitting or queuing up on the sidewalk when people normally don’t do that, means that I’m going to bump into them as I walk through any pedestrian space.”

Bashin said that his sense of touch, which he would traditionally use to get around, has become a hazard for his health, and as a result many people within the blind community have become afraid to go outside at all.

“We wind up paying premium prices for home delivery services,” he said. “The governor may have given the all clear for a lot of the state, but I think blind people will and should lag behind the general population.”

The letter lists three recommendations for the “Shared Spaces” program: provide sufficient time for every part of program development, prioritize using street space over sidewalk space, and provide ways to give feedback and share examples of places that aren’t in compliance.

There’s no doubt the program has rolled out quickly since it was announced by Mayor London Breed a month ago. In a webinar for restaurant owners on June 24, Terrence Hong, a senior environmental health inspector with the Department of Public Health, said teams have already conducted over 6,000 on-site compliance checks to ensure businesses are following public health orders and enforce the need to create a sidewalk space of six feet or more for pedestrians to safely pass by.

In a statement, the Department of Emergency Management said it has considered the needs of those with disabilities, and suggested that it will be reprimanding businesses that don’t adhere to their specific orders.

“We are working diligently and coordinating reviews amongst multiple agencies (MTA, PW) to help expedite the review process and that we take accessibility seriously and a lack of compliance therein may result in permit revocation.”

Jessica Lehman, executive director of Senior and Disability Action, said she wants to ensure that seniors and people with disabilities aren’t seen as a separate group with extra needs, and she believes that solutions can be found which will accommodate everyone.

“Seniors and disabled people are also small business owners, and also people who are going to go eat at these outdoor restaurants or patronize businesses,” she said. “We need to find better ways to bake accessibility into all programs from the start.”

Scott Blanks, senior director of programs at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said he thinks that The City has done a good job of listening to issues the LightHouse has raised in the past. He worries, however, that the two days it takes for a “Shared Spaces” permit to be approved is not enough time for The City to ensure that the spaces can be properly accommodated.

“Anytime there’s a significant change like this, it doesn’t have to be negative, but there are often concerns because traditionally people with disabilities have been largely overlooked in these considerations,” he said. “My worry is that it sounds like it’s not too onerous for the business to get started, which is great, but how are they going to enforce proper usage?”

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