When Neva Allen went to Belfast’s 250th anniversary celebration at the city park on July 1, she was expecting a challenge. She uses a powered wheelchair to get around, and finding a way to actually get down to the park and join the festivities was a struggle.
First, there are potholes and cracks that make traveling on some sidewalks in Belfast nearly impossible, so Allen often moves to the road. When she needs to get back on the sidewalk, she sometimes will have to travel a block or more next to passing cars before she can find a curb cut where her wheelchair can roll onto the higher surface.
When she and her boyfriend finally arrived at the park last Saturday, it took more time to find a flat spot to stop her wheelchair and enjoy the music.
Belfast’s accessibility issues stem from its hilly landscape, as well as the historic layout and infrastructure. Although the city has grown and changed over time, it hasn’t improved its accessibility, leaving people with mobility issues facing challenges getting around particularly downtown.
Until recently, it wasn’t possible to cross from the sidewalk by City Hall to the one by the Colonial Theatre in a wheelchair. Other places like the city police department still don’t have nearby cut outs that allow a wheelchair or walker to move onto the sidewalk. Ramps and handicap spots are also especially sparse closer to the water and the city park.
But advocates like Allen, along with fellow Belfast resident Aynne Ames, are pushing the city to make improvements that they hope will lead to a major overhaul for the city’s accessibility.
“They talk about [Belfast] being a walkable city, but it’s not for a lot of people,” Allen said.
Allen and Ames have raised concerns about their experiences with accessibility in Belfast for years, both with local businesses and the city government. In November, they brought the issue to the Belfast City Council and were asked to create a list of formal recommendations for improvements.
So they did.
In the following months, they met with the council and provided a report highlighting damaged sidewalks and a lack of sidewalk access points near handicap parking spots downtown. They included a series of photos showing problem areas, as well as broader issues related to handicap parking.
The pair also provided letters from residents and their families explaining personal experiences with mobility challenges in town and suggestions for improvements. They met with the council again last week to continue discussing their findings.
Now, Allen and Ames want to see the city take action to address their concerns.
“It has to be done, it’s wrong not to do it and it’s wrong not to do it soon,” Ames said.
It’s a matter of inclusivity, Ames said. She points to census data that estimate nearly 36 percent of Belfast’s roughly 7,000 residents are over age 65. Even though being older doesn’t necessarily mean having mobility issues, and people experiencing challenges aren’t always older, she said it’s clear that the city has a large population of people that would benefit from accessibility improvements.
Both she and Allen said people who don’t experience these challenges regularly can’t grasp the urgency they feel about getting the work done.
“People who do not have mobility problems don’t truly understand them,” Ames said. “They think they do, and they’re sympathetic, and they want to help, but they don’t realize what help means.”
City Councilor Neal Harkness has been involved in conversations on accessibility issues in Belfast for years and recognizes that without firsthand experience, most people just don’t understand the importance of these issues. Getting older and having loved ones with decreased mobility in recent years has opened his eyes to the difficulties of getting around Belfast.
The city’s annual budget, which will go to a public hearing on July 18, includes $120,000 specifically for addressing sidewalk damages, a significant increase from past years. Harkness sees it as one of the most immediate steps to addressing the concerns brought before the council. While the city does meet Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, Harkness said, he thinks more should be done to make Belfast more accessible.
“ADA compliance is the floor, that’s not the goal you shoot for,” Harkness said. “We have to do better than that.”
Belfast has tried to tackle specific accessibility concerns in recent years as they’ve been raised before the council, but that only fixes things when they are broken, Harkness said.
“It’s a triage situation,” Harkness said.
The true solution will be a plan that includes accessibility as a key part of the city’s future development, Harkness said. In the long term, he wants to see a comprehensive report on the city’s pedestrian infrastructure highlighting accessibility changes that need to be made and maintained.
That will be the job of the city’s newly formed Pedestrian, Transportation and Accessibility Policy Committee, Harkness said.
Allen will be a part of the new committee, and she’s bringing the report she and Ames made as a starting point for a long-term solution to mobility issues. She sees a future where the city’s work accessibility goes beyond mobility issues — having American Sign Language interpreters at City Council meetings and installing more sidewalk bumps that warn people with visual impairments when they’re approaching a crosswalk, for instance.
While she has some trepidation, Allen said she’s confident that she’ll be able to make her voice heard on the new committee.
“I will be loud, because it’s time that this be considered,” Allen said. “It’s gonna take work, but there will be a comprehensive plan if I have anything to say about it, because it really needs to be done.”
But Ames feels the time for discussion is over. She’ll continue to address accessibility issues as a resident, but feels the city has enough information to get started. She wants to see the change start now.
“It’s been talked to death,” Ames said. “It has to be acted on, and it has to be done right.”