Chapel Hill plans to become more disability-accessible over the next five years

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By Fraser Sherman

Chapel Hill expects to spend around $2.2 million over the next five years making city services and facilities more usable to people with disabilities.

That’s the estimated cost in Chapel Hill’s 2023 American Disabilities Act (ADA) Transition Plan. The ADA is the federal law banning disability-related discrimination. Chapel Hill Downtown Special Projects Manager Sarah Poulton says the town has to meet the ADA’s standards both as an employer and in providing services to the public. The law requires municipalities to self-assess their facilities, accessibility policies, town communications and town services for compliance with the ADA.

Poulton said Chapel Hill has made partial assessments of its ADA compliance in the past, but nothing as comprehensive as the Transition Plan: “This gives you a map of things to be working on. We have our marching orders.”

Stewart Engineering, a local firm, drew up the 423-page document, with Precision Infrastructure Management providing facilities analysis. The plan notes where the city complies with the ADA’s requirements and where it falls short. Among the shortfalls:

  • Braille signs that aren’t positioned correctly.
  • The Chapel Hill Courthouse assembly area has no designated wheelchair spaces.
  • Some van-accessible ADA parking spots don’t have signs saying they’re van-accessible.
  • Some bathroom spaces are too narrow for wheelchair users.
  • No van-accessible parking spaces at Hargraves Community Center.
  • Some of the city’s playground equipment needs upgrading or replacing.
  • Some roads need new or improved crosswalks.
  • Coat hooks in city restrooms that hang more than four feet above the floor.
  • Curb ramps that need reconstruction.

Even small changes can be significant if they make a difference whether someone with a disability can use a facility, a sidewalk, or a bathroom relatively easily.

Poulton said few of the projects are particularly complex or technical; the challenge is finding money and time to complete them. As the town received the plan after it had approved the fiscal year 2024 budget, the projects scheduled for the first year are “low-hanging fruit” that won’t cost too much. For example:

  • Install tactile signs with braille at the Community Center’s pool and basketball court.
  • Install two accessible parking spaces at the fire station.
  • Reposition wall braille signs so they’re in the preferred location – by the latch side of each door.
  • Where buildings have disability-inaccessible entrances, put up signs directing visitors to the nearest accessible entrance.
  • Securing edges of floor mats to reduce the tripping risk.
  • Educate staff and town officials on ADA requirements for communications.
  • Put a “van accessible” sign directly in front of the van-accessible handicapped space at the Community Center.

The city will tackle more expensive projects in FY 2025-2028.
“Long-term improvements are certain to require higher levels of planning, design and financial investment,” the plan says. “To accommodate larger-scale projects, the Town of Chapel Hill will integrate some of them into the Town’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and will continue to work with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to align Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) projects with ADA compliance needs.”

“There’s a good bit of work happening already,” Chapel Hill Risk Manager Wade Gulledge told The Local Reporter. Gulledge said departments such as Transit or Parks and Recreation have been working on improving accessibility since well before the Transition Plan.

Gulledge added that while the city doesn’t get many ADA-related complaints, it takes the ones it receives seriously. For instance, tree roots pushing up through sidewalks in some places have made them too uneven for wheelchairs: “We have to come up and grind an edge down to make it a much better transition. Other times, if it’s significant we have to replace a section.”

Other requests, he said, are about services rather than infrastructure. For example, Parks and Recreation has been asked about providing a sign-language interpreter for a summer camp.

The U.S. Census says 3.8 percent of Chapel Hill’s under-65 population have a disability. Poulton said the statistics aren’t the point:  “We would be making all this effort even if it was zero population. Many people who visit our facilities don’t live in Chapel Hill. We’re really dedicated to making the town accessible.”

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.

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1 Comment on "Chapel Hill plans to become more disability-accessible over the next five years"

  1. It would be great if more builders used universal design. Far too few of the new apartments have barrier free bathrooms. Friends report difficulty in finding units with barrier free showers.

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