Support for bill addressing building accessibility voiced at State House hearing

The Massachusetts State House
The Massachusetts State House. Oct. 9, 2021. (Photo by Mild Laohapoonrungsee/BU News Service)

By Madeleine Pearce
Boston University News Service

Proposed legislation to create more accessible buildings and facilities was discussed on Beacon Hill this week by the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Among the topics tackled was the bill S. 1629, “An Act Building a More Accessible Massachusetts.” The bill seeks to increase access to workplaces and facilities as the current state building codes do not require buildings constructed before March 1991 to follow existing accessibility requirements

“While the state law requires 5% of new apartment buildings to be accessible, renovations on buildings contributed before 1991 require no accessibility at all,” said Sen. Michael Moore, D-Worcester. 

Sponsored by Moore, the legislation will require all buildings to include access for the disabled, and those built before 1991 to follow the same regulations if the property is gutted.

Building codes in Massachusetts fall behind in complying with federal regulations, according to Moore. In comparison to other states, the commonwealth ranks poorly. A 2019 study found that the state ranks No. 35 of 50 to provide resources and accessibility for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“This change will bring Massachusetts building codes up to par with federal regulations in the American Disabilities Act,” said Moore. “This is Massachusetts and we are lagging behind what is currently in federal law.” 

Lack of accessible housing and buildings could affect poverty levels for the disabled, said Harry Weissman, director of advocacy for the Disability Policy Consortium. 

“With most businesses struggling to find good employees, it doesn’t make good business sense to not recruit this workforce,” said Weissman. “Now is the time to do the right thing and report [the bills] out favorably.”

In Massachusetts, 27.8% of individuals with disabilities live below the poverty line, compared to 10.5% without a disability. 

Chris Hoeh, a MA Registered Advocate for the United Spinal Association, who lives with a spinal cord injury, said he has called for greater accessibility in Massachusetts for the last 20 years. 

“They have to suffer great indignities just to do the job,” said Hoeh at Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s a disgrace that this form of discrimination is still legal.”

Brendan Shea, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in 2017, said accessible housing allowed him to live on his own after others told him to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home. 

“I ended up stuck at a nursing home for a couple of months because I couldn’t find accessible housing,” said Shea. 

As of this week, the bills have not yet received substantial pushback but some speakers at Wednesday’s hearing said that the bills do not go far enough. 

“I think the requirements that would be adopted by this legislation are very modest,” said Rick Glassman, director of advocacy at the Disability Law Center. “They don’t go to the full range of accessibility features.” 

“We want to inspire you to take action,” said Hoeh. “You would be our inspiration. You will show us that democracy works when we finally pass this legislation.”

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