City’s new director of ADA compliance is ready for Philly to (finally) make the accessibility grade

If you call the main number for the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities that oversees its respective commission, you’ll most likely, at least from the time of this reporting, get their answering machine.“Hello, you just reached the Mayor’s Commission…

If you call the main number for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities that oversees its respective commission, you’ll most likely, at least from the time of this reporting, get their answering machine.

“Hello, you just reached the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities. Please leave a message and we will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you very much and have a good day.”

But the chance anyone will get back to you in a reasonable amount of time, if at all, is unlikely. Understaffed, the commission a staff of just three has been manned by only two people in the past few months. One employee, Executive Director and Accessibility Compliance Specialist Charles W. Horton, has been out on sick leave for an undisclosed amount of time without temporary replacement.

To make matters worse, the office and sole cubicle that comprise the Mayor’s Commission on Disability are situated in the middle of the Philadelphia Department of Streets office in the Municipal Services Building.

But just before the new year, the adjacent City Hall welcomed in Saron McKee, the City’s director of ADA compliance, a new role and title of its kind in Philadelphia.

First Deputy of Diversity and Inclusion Officer Steven Preston explained to Philadelphia Weekly that while Horton’s position deals with “external” relations with community members, McKee’s new role handles the “internal” issues of accessibility compliance as it pertains to local jurisdiction of the ADA. Both disability departments fall under the umbrella of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. 

McKee hopes to change course for Philadelphia’s accessibility standards and compliance. A true show of faith in Philly, after she left her job of 10 years as the ADA coordinator for the Seattle Housing Authority.

“[Seattle was] almost in the place where we are here, which was to evaluate all of the policies and procedures, do survey of all the structures, figure out where we were and how to get to where we needed to be,” said McKee. “And we engaged in that process and, within the time span, completed the process. They’re at a point now where they are in compliance, and now proactively addressing issues.”

A newcomer to Philadelphia, McKee is starting with a clean slate, fresh eyes and comparatively more funds than disability services has received in the past. The City has entered a partnership with Milligan & Company, LLC for a recorded $300k over the next three years to evaluate approximately 500 city structures for ADA compliance.

After McKee obtains and reviews the data on the current landscape of implemented accessibility standards, she explained that is when the real work will begin.

“My first priority is to focus on reviewing all of the policies and procedures and to move forward with writing a policy and procedure set, and I’m going to do that in two phases,” McKee said. “One is to do a minimal standard of this is what the law requires for our policies and procedures. Then a second phase where this is where we can go above and beyond on all of these policies and procedures, and these are going to be our best practices, this is what we strive for.”

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“Generally speaking, I will always try to educate [people who own businesses] and say, ‘hey, look, I’m not litigious, I’m not trying to give you a bunch of trouble. I want to access your services or your program and I’m really trying to participate in whatever your offering.’ If they simply refuse to engage in that, yes, I will fight with them, because everyone has a right to participate in society in an equal way.”

– Saron McKee, newly minted director of Philadelphia’s ADA Compliance office

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The Milligan Contract for accessibility evaluation of city infrastructure was brought up earlier in 2018 with the hire of Daniel Lopez, the former ADA coordinator who retained his position for six to seven months. The public report should take about a year and a half to two years to be completed and released, according to Preston.

McKee has worked on behalf of people with disabilities in various positions for almost 20 years, but the realities of living with a disability is something she has known throughout her life. Born with spina bifida, McKee uses a wheelchair.  

Raised in a family who loved to travel, McKee grew up in a number of states, including Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Colorado, Missouri, Utah and Iowa. Throughout her childhood travels, she acquired a unique perception of the varying levels of accessibility and acceptance from state to state.

“That was an always an interesting lens. Basically, can you get from point A to point B or how are you treated or are you put in a special room and a special classroom? Are you ignored? How do the other kids treat you?” McKee reflected. “It ran the gamut depending on what city you were in.”

Dropping out of high school, McKee channeled her energies into the arts and worked at the international organization on arts and disability, the VSA arts of Washington. Through her work, she saw the setbacks to accessible arts, both on the part of the artists and the spectator.

“Many art organizations were struggling with providing services to people with disabilities and having accessible buildings where artists with disabilities could perform or engage in performances,” McKee recounted. “I decided that I wanted to learn more about it, and see if I could do something to help. And so I did.”

Taking back up her textbooks, McKee received her high school diploma, as well as her undergraduate and master’s degree from Western Washington University. In addition, she started her doctorate.

While her education background is grounded in psychology, McKee realized she continually chose work that directly helped with disability reform. Eventually, her passion for disability rights was  self-apparent, and she took the job as ADA coordinator in Seattle. Over the years, McKee has fought for others’ rights as well as her own. Still subjected to discrimination, one of the latest additions to the City of Philadelphia is no stranger to sticking up for herself.

“Generally speaking, I will always try to educate the person and say, ‘hey, look, I’m not litigious, I’m not trying to give you a bunch of trouble. I want to access your services or your program and I’m really trying to participate in whatever your offering,’” said McKee. “If they simply refuse to engage in that, yes, I will fight with them, because everyone has a right to participate in society in an equal way.”

TWITTER: @ANDREAJCANTOR