My Open Letter to City Designers

I originally wrote this email for the Des Moines City Council. For the past year, I’ve adjusted the verbiage to reflect what I’ve heard in their City Council Meetings with the Public. I also adjust the bullet points and actions I (and others) wish to see them take. Otherwise, most of the letters are verbatim what I wrote below. I am sharing this because far too many cities have poor design choices that limit the accessibility of city spaces. This is unacceptable.

Accessibility creates a more open, inclusive, and welcoming environment for ALL people regardless of whether they are disabled or not. Yes, it will mean more work, but that is not an excuse to take the quick route and create an inaccessible design. Instead, work with the disabled community, and build an accessible design that meets the needs of the most vulnerable. This, in turn, will make the design and spaces accessible and inclusive to all people – for when we take care of our most vulnerable, we lift up all people.

The Letter:

Hello {insert names of recipients here},

I wanted to share how inaccessible designs of supposedly “equal access public areas” by the city of Des Moines are harming the disabled community. The disabled community consists of people from all races, ethnicities, religions, ages, sexual orientations, and gender identities, who have differing physical and mental capabilities from what our society views as “average” or “normal.” Really anyone from any walk of life can become disabled or may be disabled. We exist and we matter just as much as any other person in this city.

However, the city of Des Moines has been relatively antagonistic toward our existence. The following is a growing list of concerns myself and other disability activists have.

During a council meeting in June 2021, the council had a discussion on sidewalks that was incredibly harmful for disabled people. I will quote Linda W. who said, “Sidewalks to affordable housing go to nowhere.” Many disabled people live in affordable housing, and sidewalks that go to our housing are not sidewalks to nowhere. That statement is harmful and rooted in the discriminatory notion that disabled lives, elderly lives, and people in poverty do not matter — which is false. We do matter, and our lives and needs are crucial and important. Please recognize this and consider the following concerns affecting the disabled community in Des Moines.

Physical Space

Physical space pertains to the environment that surrounds us and how we navigate that environment; this may include housing, restrooms, public buildings, sidewalks, streets, etc.

  • Sidewalks in many residential areas are not wheelchair safe. Most are broken and not upkept, especially in the poorer areas of Des Moines. Sidewalks need to be wide enough to comfortably allow a wheelchair user and a person to walk side by side. All streets need sidewalks. Sidewalks are not just an accessibility need. They help parents with strollers and elderly persons walking to stores or events. Broad sidewalks also keep residents safe by increasing the distance between vulnerable residents (such as children and pets) and fast-moving traffic. We should not be forced to walk or wheel ourselves in streets.
  • All doors to buildings, especially public/city buildings, should have a button that opens the door electronically. This would allow those with mobility aids to more easily enter premises. This improvement should include doors within the building – especially doors to council rooms or other offices. All interior rooms on upper floors also need elevators so those with mobility aids can reach the appropriate floor to access particular rooms. If a building is not accessible to disabled people, then it is not accessible for all.
  • All buildings need to be upgraded with high-quality ventilation and air filtration systems. The building code will need to be edited to enforce this going forward. All current buildings need funding to do repairs to these systems. We must clean our air in order to avoid the transmission of highly deadly and disabling viruses. Cleaner and well-ventilated air will also decrease the carbon footprint of the building and require less energy use, which would decrease the operating costs. The site has excellent resources on ways to implement improved filtration systems.
  • All ramps need to be clear of any debris, items, flower pots, or obstructions as obstructions can block wheelchairs from using them. Ramps also need to be upkept to avoid cracks that could trip or flip someone.
  • More Public restrooms that have wheelchair accessible stalls (more than one stall especially) need to be distributed throughout the city and should not be privatized (as in placed in businesses that demand payment for their services in order to use restroom).
  • Houseless camps have been consistently destroyed, and the police often destroy belongings and especially wheelchairs. This is wrong and unjust! Houseless camps do not harm anyone, and they are needed for safety. Without houseless camps, homeless persons are vulnerable to individual attack and lose the vital community aid that may enable them to find resources. They also provide stability, thus allowing homeless people to engage in job-finding and other programs more easily. Many homeless shelters do not provide enough space for belongings or provide flexibility in access to the shelter. Also, to destroy expensive wheelchairs when “clearing” these camps is brutal violence; all disabled homeless people should be compensated and given new and better wheelchairs for each one destroyed by the recklessness of Des Moines Police.
  • Warming Centers for houseless must be readily accessible during cold bouts. This entails having a 24/7 set of centers distributed evenly throughout the city. One central shelter cannot be relied on to assist in these situations. (The single shelter currently available has problematic rules that make it difficult for some people to access it.) I thank Ward 1 representative for keeping our most vulnerable in mind during her advocacy for this item and other similar items.
  • For housing to be accessible, there should not be steps leading up to the front doors of public buildings; input ramps should be installed instead. The City should always include elevators (or at least have dedicated accessible apartments on the first floor for disabled people), wider hallways and doors, on-site laundry, on-site parking that is free, working appliances, Internet access, and working utilities (including clean water) in City-funded accommodation or public spaces. “Disabled individuals depend on adequate utility services in their home spaces, since outside resources are so much harder to access. Without adequate wifi and comfortable accommodation, disabled people are less able to access key resources, connect with the community, and exercise their regular routines.
  • The City must update zoning regulations to include mixed modes, where residential and commercial zones are combined to provide services for residents that are within walkable distances. There is a lot of evidence that mixed mode neighborhoods are not only healthier but they also encourage more public engagement and use. Please review “Walkable City Rules by Jeff Speck” as it has excellent information and studies on how to implement mixed mode zoning well.

Community Space

Community Space pertains to the engagement of the community within the physical, informational, sensory, and transportation spaces. Engagement may include the use of utilities and public areas, access to food and shelter, emergency planning, combating gentrification, accessibility of various services and housing and utilities, and public input on construction plans.

  • Lack of infrastructure upkeep in poorer areas makes those areas more difficult to navigate and more hazardous. This severely limits our access to resources, especially food and emergency supplies. Often, in times of emergency marginalized populations have little to no access to supportive programs, and the spaces they utilize are the last to be repaired (if they are repaired at all by the city). We badly need to update our infrastructure and utilities and improve emergency plans.
  • Food deserts due to poor planning and poor zoning regulations limit our ability to access food. We need funding to be taken from the bloated police budget and pushed into our communities to fund access to food and basic necessities.
  • All construction plans should be submitted for public comment and feedback by stakeholders from the affected community; stakeholders must be a diverse group that actively includes disabled people, folks of color, LGBTQIA folks, immigrants, and those at the intersection of those identities. The more diverse the stakeholder groups are, the better the problem-solving and design process will be. Diversity brings forth imagination that strengthens designs, improves relations within the community, and helps create a more collaborative and engaging city that is accessible to all. Please do a better job by employing focus groups to review proposed construction plans, giving adequate time to distribute that information to the public, and asking local justice and diverse organizations and groups for participation.
  • Accessible housing within the Des Moines city limits costs more than the disability benefits people receive monthly. Many of the income restricted residences are still outside of our price ranges. This gentrification is pushing us either into homelessness or into (often inaccessible) housing on the outskirts of the city. Affordable housing is a must for the city as a whole.
  • Affordable housing for ALL people, especially homeless people, is possible. Salt Lake City, Utah, for instance, as well as cities in Finland, implemented a program in which they built a series of small houses for the homeless. This program also provided them with access to food. This program not only decreased homelessness significantly, but it also gave people a chance to rebuild and find jobs and more suitable housing (thus opening up the small houses for other in-need folks). These programs exist, studies show they work, and such programs ought to be implemented here.
  • Stop rent hikes. There is no reason for one bedroom housing to cost over 800 dollars in Des Moines. We can do better about having affordable and accessible housing. Stop giving developers outside of Iowa access to buy up neighborhoods – they steal jobs and money away from local developers/neighborhood associations that could maintain or create more accessible and equitable housing.

Information Space

Information space consists of access to Internet, virtual communities, dissemination of information and various types of data, and public access to information and various types of data.

  • Pandemic supplies and information distribution needs to be streamlined and made more easily accessible through online and in-person distribution. The mask mandates need to continue. Free access to vaccines, N95 masks, and other supplies need to be offered in all libraries, grocery stores, and other heavily trafficked and accessible locations.
  • City Council meetings are highly inaccessible, since there is no virtual option. The in-person meetings are on the second floor of an archaic building and held right after regular working hours. The room itself has a little space for wheelchair users and those with mobility aids. Elevator access is guarded, which makes it harder to navigate safely to the correct floor. The chosen time makes it difficult for people coming from an 8 to 5 job to reach the council in time to participate. ALL Meetings should have a virtual option for those of us who are homebound and may not be able to make it in-person. Failure to provide this is a direct violation of the ADA. 2020 proved that the council is capable of implementing a virtual option where we can speak virtually, so it makes little to no sense to not continue that option even as in-person activities resume.
  • All council meetings need accurate captions (captions get garbled for speakers who don’t use microphones or don’t talk loud enough or talk too fast).
  • They also need a transcript for the public to easily access and review (for those that may not find the livestream accessible). Currently, City Council transcripts are difficult to locate on the City’s website. and often need to be requested. This process is not well documented in an easy to locate location.
  • Transparency is a crucial part of accessibility as well as fostering public support and respect. City documents, council media, and information need to be readable, accessible, and freely available to the public. This includes providing alt text for any images used in the virtual version of documents, captions and transcripts for spoken and video media, and large spaced out fonts.
  • Hybrid town halls should be held where council members actually speak to their constituents and listen to their concerns. These cannot be speeches by council members – it needs to be a listening session conducted in an easily accessible location that has an interactive virtual component (for those that cannot go in person). I want to thank Ward 1 representative for her work on creating these in her Ward. I ask that all other Wards do this also and follow her lead.

Transportation Space

Transportation space describes the way people navigate to and from spaces, such as using public transportation, any issues with roads or sidewalks that can hinder the movement, and emergency response teams and vehicles.

  • Bus stops are rendered inaccessible where the curb cuts are not nearby or the curb cuts are covered with debris or snow due to plowing and a lack of Des Moines resources in keeping them cleared. This is a common occurrence in the winter, and it is often community members volunteering to clean these areas for us because the city is failing to follow through.
  • Potholes in roads that never get fixed in poorer areas are health risks, especially if no sidewalks or dangerously broken sidewalks force us into the street in our wheelchairs. A pothole could send us to the hospital. We need funding for infrastructure repair and upkeep.
  • ADA-compliant buses are difficult to schedule and not enough of them exist to meet the increasing needs of the community. Currently, Des Moines paratransit system is archaic. Rides are only able to be scheduled by a phone call, as there is no online option for scheduling. Applications for inclusion into the paratransit program is mail-in or drop-off only, where again, there is no online option to submit the application. Wide time ranges are given for pick-ups and drop-offs, but there is no application disabled people can access to track where their bus is on their route. This system needs a major technological upgrade.
  • Paramedics are not well trained on disabled LGBTQIA needs or even how to treat us with respect and dignity. Better diversity training is needed.
  • We need a better emergency response that does not utilize police. Police escalate the situation and cause further harm to marginalized populations. They cannot be the catch-all for all emergency needs. We need community-based emergency squads that are run by communities themselves with support from the city. I highly suggest creation of accountability task forces that include measures drafted by the impacted community, and to base it off of this toolkit:

All of the above are accessibility issues that this city has. I have covered a lot of different arenas here, but it is not an exhaustive list. There is a lot of work to be done here. I often recommend people view accessibility through the lens of “spaces,” to try to see the multiple layers that affect all of us (disabled and non-disabled alike).

As I and my other disability activists talk through the issues in Des Moines, we will update this list with more information. Please consider the fact that we exist and we matter, and our needs should be prioritized.

Accessibility is love; when the needs of the most vulnerable are met, then the needs of all are met.

We also respectfully ask that the Des Moines City Council please defund the police and fund the crucial services and fixes we detailed above regarding accessibility. Also, please cease harmful rhetoric and pro-police proclamations that ignore the needs of the people and continue to feed the police budget and agenda. These proclamations are causing enormous distrust, frustration, and anger in our communities. We matter. Police have been known to harm and kill those in my community (disability and/or LGBTQIA community) and those of my friends (Black and Indigenous People of Color communities, immigrant communities). The data that shows how police do not make our city safer ought to matter more than the money police funnel into your campaigns. I often recommend the book “End of Policing” by Alex Vitale and “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us” by Mariame Kaba as introductory texts that include the data and alternative ideas to policing. We can do better, and we need to build better programs and resources to meet the needs of our communities; those programs and resources need the funding more than police.

Again, please address the above list of inaccessible designs and lack of resources in our communities.

All of this is doable. We have the ideas, and for the past few years we have tried to share them with the City Council. I implore the City Council to listen to the people for whom Council members ought to be working.

If you side with life at all, then please side with the lives of our communities, where our lives matter and deserve respect and dignity. This is our city as well, and that ought to matter to you.

Thank you for reading,

{{Sign here}}

Aidan Z.
nonbinary disabled activist, artist, writer
Pronouns: They/Them/Their or Ze/Zem/Zir

By Aibird

Open the door, step inside. Here you find a forest, teeming with animals and birds, which sweeps up the sides of snow-capped mountains. Here in the small pocket of beauty, one finds the essence of my soul. A writer at heart, I delve deep into the finer details of humanity's spirit, and seek to share with others what gems I uncover. I find life exciting and full of interesting surprises, and despite the great pain that often confronts me, I persevere with the joy in my heart still bubbling, and the light of my soul still aflame. There is a time and a place to introspect one's self, but often enough it is best to not look back in regret, but leap forward in the present toward the achievement of one's deepest dreams. I am a wanderer. An explorer. One place cannot contain me for long, but to my friends and family, I remain loyal, for love is not bound by time nor place. Once cultivated and nourished continuously, it binds people together on a journey through the unknown reaches of life.


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