My Open Letter to City Designers

I originally wrote this email for the Des Moines City Council. For the past month, 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 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 will, in turn, make the design and spaces accessible and inclusive to all people – as when we take care of our most vulnerable, we lift up all people.

The Letter:


I wanted to bring up how the inaccessible designs by the city of Des Moines is harming the disabled community here. I also want to be clear that the disabled community consists of people from all races, ethnicities, religions, ages, sexual orientations, and gender identities. 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. This is a growing list of concerns myself and other disability activists have.

A past council meeting in June 2021 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 is not sidewalks to nowhere. That is harmful and rooted in a harmful notion that disabled lives, Eldery lives, and the people in poverty do not matter — which is false. We do matter, and our lives and needs are crucial and important. Please recognize this.

I will send followup emails periodically until see that these are being adequately addressed.

  • 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 but they help parents with strollers, elderly walking to their store or event, and keeping residents safe. We should not be forced to walk or wheel ourselves in streets.
  • Lack of infrastructure upkeep in poorer areas makes those areas more hazardous for our mobility and access to resources, especially food and emergency supplies. Often, in times of emergency, marginalized populations have little to no access to supportive programs and are often the last to be repaired (if they are repaired at all by the city). We need to update our infrastructure and utilities badly, and improve emergency plans.
  • More Public restrooms that have wheelchair accessible stalls (more than one stall especially) – these need to be distributed throughout the city and should not be privatized (as in placed in businesses that demand payment of their services in order to use restroom)
  • all doors to buildings, especially public/city buildings, should have a button that opens the door electronically, so that those with mobility aids can more easily enter premises. This includes doors within the building – especially doors to the 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 that particular room. If the building is not accessible to disabled people, then it is not accessible for all.
  • 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.
  • Redo the bidding system for contracts to make it more transparent and accessible for local groups, organizations, and businesses to bid for. Do not rely on a special list of “preferred” groups as that favoritism can hurt local services that could perform the task just as well if not better.
  • In addition to redoing bidding, all construction plans need public comment and need stakeholders from the affected community – these need to be a diverse group that 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. Diversity brings forth imagination that improve designs, improve relations within community, and help create a more relational city that is accessible to all. Please do a better job by employing focus groups and giving adequate time to distribute that information to the public and asking local justice and diverse organizations and groups for participation.
  • accessible housing in Des Moines proper costs more than the disability benefits people receive monthly. Many of the income restricted ones are still outside of our price ranges. This gentrification is pushing us either into homelessness or into (often inaccessible) housing on the outskirts. Affordable housing is a must for the city proper.
  • Houseless camps have been consistently destroyed, where 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. 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.
  • Affordable housing for ALL people, especially houseless is possible. Salt Lake City, Utah, for instance, or cities in Finland, implemented a program where they built a series of small houses for the houseless, provided them with access to food, and 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 ought to be implemented here.
  • Stop rent hikes. There is no reason for one bedrooms 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 buying up neighborhoods – they steal jobs and money away from local developers/neighborhood associations that could maintain or create more accessible and equitable housing.
  • For housing to be accessible, there should not be steps leading up to the front doors; input ramps instead. 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 (this includes clean water).
  • Food deserts due to poor planning and poor zoning regulations that limit our ability to access food. We need funding taken from the bloated police budget and pushed into our communities to fund the access to food and basic necessities.
  • Update zoning regulations to include mixed modes. There is a lot of evidence that mixed mode neighborhoods are not only healthier but they are 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 do this well.
  • 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.
  • Inaccessible meetings (no hybrid virtual-in-person). 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 microphone 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). Transparency is a crucial part of accessibility as well as fostering public support and respect.
  • inaccessible bus stop placements 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.
  • ADA-compliant buses are difficult to schedule and not enough of them exist to meet the increasing needs of the community.
  • 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 city. I highly suggest creation of community accountability and basing it off of this toolkit:
  • Hybrid town halls 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.
  • 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.
  • Warming Centers for houseless during cold bouts. This needs to be a 24/7 set of centers distributed evenly throughout the city. One central shelter cannot be relied on to assist in these situation (the shelter has problematic rules that make it difficult for some people to access it.) Again, I thank Ward 1 representative for keeping our most vulnerable in mind during her advocacy for this item and other similar items.

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 is met, then the needs of all is met.

We also respectfully ask that the Des Moines City Council please stop engaging in harmful rhetoric by siding with the brutality of police. By putting forth proclamations that ignore the needs of the people and continue to feed the police budget and agenda is 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).   Police should NOT be given more funding to continue their terrorizing of us.

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 show 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, and 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.

Please move funding from the bloated police budget and place it in infrastructure projects in our poorer communities, in projects led by our community members that increase access to education and food and utilities, in programs led by community members that provide to our safety needs (without the use of police), and in programs led by community members that provide to healthcare emergency needs (again without the use of police).

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,

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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