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The sidewalks of Sacramento, Calif., may never look the same. On Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that public sidewalks in the state’s capital are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and must be accessible to the disabled. According to Oakland, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates, which filed the suit, this is the only decision in the nation that addresses the obligation to make sidewalks accessible. “The court of appeals has clearly sent the message that cities need to comply with the ADA,” said Laurence Paradis, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates. Attorneys representing the city of Sacramento did not return calls for comment. In Barden v. City of Sacramento, 02 C.D.O.S. 5193, the court, in a unanimous decision, found that public sidewalks are a “service, program or activity of the city within the meaning of Title II of the ADA.” As a result, wrote Judge A. Wallace Tashima, “the sidewalks are subject to program accessibility regulations promulgated in furtherance of these statutes.” The case revolves around a class action filed in 1999 on behalf of thousands of people with mobility and vision disabilities. Disability Rights Advocates sued the city of Sacramento for failing to install curb ramps in new sidewalks and for failing to ensure that existing sidewalks were free of obstructions. In 2001, Sacramento settled the part of the suit relating to curb ramps — the slopes at street corners that allow wheelchairs to roll on and off sidewalks — vowing to increase the number of curb ramps it installs every year from 100 to 1,500. But Sacramento was less accommodating with respect to the benches, signposts and other barriers that can prevent wheelchairs from maneuvering on sidewalks. Unlike the sidewalks in front of, say, a public library, sidewalks in general are not a service, program or activity of the city, and hence do not fall under the ADA, the defendants maintained. The National League of Cities and 76 California cities filed amicus briefs supporting the city of Sacramento. But the court said that “attempting to distinguish which public functions are services, programs or activities and which are not would disintegrate into needless ‘hair-splitting arguments.’” The decision means the case now returns to federal district court. Paradis says he hopes the decision will prompt Sacramento to settle. “Fighting to keep sidewalks inaccessible and hazardous to disabled people is just irrational.”

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