- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa’s second largest city will be required to install thousands of new curb ramps and make changes to parks, buildings and parking lots under an Americans with Disabilities Act settlement announced Tuesday.

The far-reaching agreement gives Cedar Rapids four years to complete a transformation that should vastly improve services and access for disabled individuals, including those who use wheelchairs or have vision, hearing and speech problems. City officials say the costs could reach $15 million, and have already borrowed $5 million to start the work.

U.S. Attorney Kevin Techau of the Northern District of Iowa praised city leaders for reaching the settlement, which also calls for improving for the disabled in everything from police services to the city’s website.

“For everyday people in Cedar Rapids, those that have disabilities, this is going to open up all those opportunities that they are entitled to under the law,” he said.

The settlement avoids the prospect of a civil lawsuit and resolves alleged violations that were uncovered during a routine compliance review that began in 2011, when auditors visited city parks, swimming pools, golf courses, parking lots and buildings. The review determined that disabled individuals were “excluded from participation in or are denied the benefits of many of Cedar Rapids’ programs, services or activities,” according to the settlement.

Many of the alleged violations were in buildings, streets and parks that date back to before the landmark law took effect in 1990, Techau said.

Cedar Rapids denied the violations but cooperated over the last year to negotiate the settlement, which the city council approved in July.

More than 215 similar agreements have been negotiated by the U.S. Department of Justice under its Civic Access Project, including one with Des Moines in 2011.

In Cedar Rapids, 4,000 to 8,000 curb ramps will have to be installed to remove physical barriers to sidewalks, assistant city manager Sandi Fowler recently told the city council. She said the most expensive parts of the agreement will be the ramps and correcting parking lot slopes. Paths will also need to be installed at city parks to allow wheelchair users access to things like tennis courts and bathrooms, she noted.

The agreement gives the city 15 months to identify and develop a plan to make the changes to sidewalks, and four years to complete the work. The city is already moving to hire an architect to monitor the projects and verify progress to the Justice Department, as required by the deal. That architect will also review Cedar Rapids buildings and programs that weren’t part of the federal review and document any violations.

In the coming months, Cedar Rapids must ensure that its 911 dispatchers are equipped to effectively receive TTY communications - used by those with hearing and speech impediments - and develop procedures and training for handling those calls as quickly and accurately as any other calls. The city’s police station must also be outfitted with equipment to handle such calls.

Techau said the public safety improvements were particularly important because they could “make a life or death reaction.”

The city must also draft new procedures for making documents available in alternate formats, including Braille, and to improve the accessibility of its website and online services.

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