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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September, 2004, 02:36 GMT 03:36 UK
San Francisco - Golden Gate to disability
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

With UK law on disability rights about to change on the first of next month, campaigners are pointing to the high levels of accessibility in San Francisco as a possible future for Britain.

Geoff Adams-Spink recently visited the city on America's west coast to find out just how accessible it is.

Photo of the Golden Gate Bridge
Campaigners say San Francisco points the way for access in the UK
San Francisco - when it comes to improving access for disabled people - has had 30 years' headstart on the UK.

Not only has American disability rights legislation been on the federal statute books for 12 years, but California's own laws have been in place since the mid 1970s.

The result is a city in which provision for people with disabilities is quite literally part of the landscape.

Public buildings, shops and offices all have step-free entrances; transport including buses, ferries, 'streetcars' and the metro are accessible to people with mobility and sensory impairments.

The message from the Disability Rights Commission - the body which oversees disability equality in the UK - is that California's access present could be the UK's access future.

Shopping unlimited

The trendy, alternative shopping area known as Haight Ashbury is full of businesses selling smoking paraphernalia, ethnic clothes, CDs and designer goods.

It is reckoned that 99 percent of the businesses - most of which are individually owned - are accessible.

"It's very subtly done," said actress, Julie Fernandez, who is a wheelchair user.

Photo of Julie Fernandez emerging from Haight Ashbury hairdresser
Fernandez enjoys the easy access to shops in Haight Ashbury
Ms Fernandez - who has appeared in The Office and Eldorado - was in San Francisco along with a group of journalists as guests of the DRC.

"The Americans with Disabilities Act has been around a lot longer so there's an understanding and acceptance of making shops accessible," she said.

"In the UK many businesses say they will have to shut down, but it comes down to individual attitudes to disability because many alterations aren't that expensive."

Helping hand

For those new to the city, the authorities have produced an access guide which contains information on how to get around, the levels of accessibility at San Francisco's various tourist attractions as well as details on restaurants and hotels that have made provision for disabled visitors.

"San Francisco is a very diverse city, and it's a city that's used to welcoming people from all walks of life - whether it be different languages, cultures, religions or levels of disability," said Tim Zahner from the San Francisco Visitors' Bureau.

"The Mayor's office is very committed to disability and they have a phone number so if you have any complaints or questions you can call them."

Spending a quarter

All of San Francisco's street toilets are fully accessible, largely thanks to access consultant, Richard Skaff, who used to work for the city administration.

Photo of accessible street toilet
Street toilets are all accessible thanks to Richard Skaff's efforts
"Initially it was proposed to make one in five of them accessible," he told BBC News Online.

"I said 'no, you're going to put them on the public right of way and everything on the public right of way has to be accessible'. A week or two later they came back and said they'd make 50 percent of them accessible - and I told them that this was a federal law not a Richard Skaff law."

So by spending a quarter ($0.25c) everyone can use the toilets for twenty minutes - a period of time over which Mr Skaff fought and won another battle.

"There was a belief that they would be misused for illegal purposes, but I said that people with disabilities often can't use a toilet in ten minutes," he said.

"So we demanded and succeeded in getting twenty minutes, but it's still being argued about."

Rapid transit

To get around the greater San Francisco area most people use the BART or Bay Area Rapid Transit.

"It was the first accessible system designed and built in North America," said BART's access coordinator, Ike Nnaji.

Photo of BART platform
BART's accessibility didn't protect it from a law suit
There is a minimal gap between train and platform, bright yellow tactile flooring at the platform edge, lifts throughout the system and display boards that also give an audio readout.

"We had all of this before it was recommended by the Americans with Disabilities Act - in fact most of the ADA recommendations were modelled on BART," said Dr Nnaji.

In spite of this, on a trip I took to Berkeley - a small university town across the bay from San Francisco - there were no announcements about what the next stop would be, and station identification boards were almost impossible to read through the heavily-tinted glass.

I was in Berkeley to meet Ann Cupolo Freeman - a wheelchair user who brought a successful case against BART under the ADA because so many lifts were out of service.

"They were broken, they were a mess and a lot of people were using them as toilets," she said.

"Maintenance wasn't being done regularly and you never knew when you went to BART whether your elevator to get on or off was working."

BART settled the case before it came to court and agreed to repair or replace many of the lifts.

They also set up a regularly-updated phone line that gives information about where lifts are out of action, and have set up an arrangement with another company to transport disabled people to their destination if they have to alight at the wrong station.

So will the UK benefit from similar improvements when the final phase of the Disability Discrimination Act comes into force on October 1st?

San Francisco lawyer, Sid Wolinsky - who specialises in disability rights cases - thinks it will.

"Hopefully you'll see the removal of architectural barriers," he said.

"But the success or failure of the legislation depends on how active and involved the disability community is in advancing its own interests."

"The law will have an educational effect - to raise the level of awareness of business and society about what is necessary for people with disabilities."

Click here to listen to Geoff Adams-Spink's report

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