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(Note from Kate Phaneuf: Although I am a Member and, until recently, was chair of the Commission on Disability, the following represents my personal views. I am not speaking for the Commission on Disability.)
In April 2009, the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) approved the use of the wheelchair lift on the town Common to provide accessibility to the bandstand. The town first had to meet certain conditions, which included providing an acceptable policy for use of the lift. Without consulting the MAAB, selectmen amended that policy in May 2013, making substantial changes to the version accepted by the MAAB in April 2009. The town now faces an MAAB Fine Hearing, with the potential for millions of dollars in fines, because of this. On Aug. 27, selectmen amended the policy once again, restoring much of the language of the April 2009 policy, which should help appease the MAAB.
However, I think it is important to look at the bigger picture, here. For persons using wheelchairs to access the bandstand, a ramp would be preferable to a lift. Use of a ramp for accessibility is an example of Universal Design. Under principles of Universal Design, products and environments are designed to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.
If the lift at the bandstand were replaced with a ramp, it would benefit the most people. It could be used by wheelchair users, but would also be helpful for those using canes or walkers. Parents pushing baby carriages and strollers would benefit. It could even be used for moving heavy band equipment onto the bandstand (while this would not be an allowed use of the lift, which can only be used for persons with disability).
There are many additional reasons why a ramp is preferred to a lift. Ramps are always available for spontaneous visits by anyone, including persons using wheelchairs. According to requirements of both Americans with Disability Act (ADA) law and MAAB regulations, the bandstand is supposed to be closed off when the lift is not immediately available for use, although the town has ignored these requirements. If required to comply in the future by either the U.S. Department of Justice (which enforces ADA Law) or the MAAB, this could lead to resentment toward those with disabilities. Once constructed, a ramp would have little to no ongoing costs and is not subject to mechanical failure. A lift requires ongoing maintenance and periodic inspections by the state, with outlays for servicing contracts and inspection fees.
The Common Restoration Project has given the town a great gift by beautifying the Common and creating an attractive replica of the bandstand which graced the Common in an earlier century. I understand their motivations in resisting any change to their aesthetic vision for town center, but solutions can be found that blend in with the nostalgic look of the area. (Resident) Bill Taffel tried to do this at Town Meeting 2018, when he proposed ornamental-style traffic lights for the intersection of Boston Road and Main Street. In addition to improving safety, such a measure would have also greatly improved accessibility. I had hoped that similar efforts could improve accessibility of the bandstand, using construction that would blend in with the rest of the bandstand.
I’ve been told that the bandstand is a small issue. However, I feel that improving accessibility to the bandstand would show that the town cares about persons with disabilities and is willing to take the lead on improving accessibility to services, programs and activities at the seat of our town government. If the failure of the traffic light petition is any indication, perhaps Westford just isn’t ready to address these issues. On the other hand, the petition lost by only a very small margin…. — Katherine L. Phaneuf, MD – Westford, MA