Memphis Center for Independent Living community director Randy Alexander knows the danger of commuting in his wheelchair on city sidewalks.
Alexander has been sideswiped by cars in certain areas of downtown and Midtown, where the absence of ramps on sidewalks have forced him to ride in the street.
But he applauds the city's recent effort to install a total of 2,500 curb ramps, thanks to a $4 million federal stimulus grant from the Surface Transportation Program.
"I couldn't get anywhere in the past, but now I can access more of my neighborhood," Alexander said. "Before, I was risking getting hit by cars to get around."
Although the construction of new ramps began in 2008, the project is nearing completion. All ramps should be installed within the next year.
"This will give people the ability to go unassisted from their home or residence to local stores, to make medical appointments, and to have better access to transit," said John Cameron, deputy city engineer.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleged the state did not provide curb ramps as required by federal law, for equal access to individuals with disabilities.
The city provided a transitional plan, but by 1998, it still lacked a significant number of ramps. Activists with the Memphis Center for Independent Living complained to the city. In October 1998, the city even canceled a scheduled ADA public hearing, fearing action from angry citizens.
Eventually, a new transitional plan was developed that called for 1,000 ramps to be built each year. Cameron said over the last 12 years, more than 14,000 ramps have been constructed in the city. It costs approximately $2 million each year to build 1,000 ramps.
Deborah Cunningham, executive director of the Memphis Center for Independent Living, said she's thrilled that the city is getting more ramps. She was struck by a car while crossing the street in her wheelchair. Though she was only shaken up, the accident left a dent in the driver's car.
"I remember back before we had curb ramps in Midtown, I would have to go as much as half a block out of my way when I needed to cross the street," Cunningham said. "I had to find a driveway, so I could cross the street."
The ramps will be placed on Cooper, Young, Southern, Madison, McLemore, and other locations. Cameron said within 10 to 15 years, the entire city will be ADA-compliant.
Cameron said it takes about a week to construct a curb ramp, and engineers must make sure the ramp is located in an area where people in wheelchairs will have a flat area to approach the ramp.
"You have to recognize any hazards adjacent to the ramp, like if there's a fire hydrant or if there's a traffic signal with a pedestrian call button," Cameron said. "We have to make sure that the person who's mobility-impaired can comfortably get to it. There are a lot of considerations. You have to look at each street corner as its own little project."