Public Comment

New: East Bay Regional Park District Changing Ordinance 38, Discriminates against the disabled

By Marilyn Saarni
Tuesday April 17, 2012 - 07:14:00 AM

East Bay Regional Parks Directors will vote to approve or reject Ordinance 38 changes on April 17, 2012. East Bay Regionals Parks staff proposes changes to Ordinance 38 that impact those with mobility and visual challenges—and they refuse to acknowledge the barriers to park access these will create for a vulnerable and underserved population. East Bay Regional Park Ord 38 regulates domestic animals in the EBRPD, including dogs. For example, dogs must be leashed in parking lots, developed areas and on paved roads. 

The staff has proposed two new rules: (1) all owners must keep their dogs leashed for 200 feet from a trail entry, or a developed area (e.g., picnic ground), or a parking lot. Two hundred feet (which is more than half a football field length) is very long for people who have mobility challenges due to health conditions. (2) Changing the definition of dogs out of control to “they are not within sight of the owner or handler.” This can create the questionable—and discriminatory—situation of an owner with poor vision such as macular degeneration automatically being defined as out of compliance. 

The rule changes are coming out of problems in Redwood Regional Park—where clearly Oakland's no-dogs-in-parks policy has pushed too dense usage onto that park. But the proposed rules would apply to ALL EBRPD parks—to all 112,000+ acres. 

People with less experience with physical limitations—either because they've never suffered such an experience themselves, or haven't had a close family member or friend cope with the many challenges—often think "wheelchair." The broad number of people who suffer from mobility challenges include those with health conditions such as MS, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, asthma, various neural and muscular degenerative diseases, poor balance, congestive heart disease, cancer treatments, etc. These are all conditions where there can be fluctuating ability from day to day—and all of them benefit tremendously from access to park trails. Then there are folks who sprained an ankle, or maybe are getting over a bad asthma attack, or just got out of bed from having flu and they are still shaky on their legs. Just because their disability is short-term, there's no reason why they should be excluded from the parks. 

Some suggest a “separate but equal” rule for those with disability: this is illegal, and has been rejected in court multiple times. It creates an environment of isolation from social intercourse and exclusion in general society. For example, in this case, under "separate but equal," someone who is disabled can have their dog off leash within 200 feet of a trail entry—but the friend who is with them cannot have their dog off leash. The friend would have to abandon the disabled person to go further into the park so they could let their dog off leash to run around. That means their dog cannot play with the disabled person's dog. That means the disabled person can't chat with the friend while the dogs play. How this has played out in the past is the rule must LEGALLY apply to both disabled and able-bodied. This means disabled people who can't walk that 200 feet can't use the parks. City of Berkeley did exactly that with their Cesar Chavez off-leash area--and now no disabled person can walk their dog off-leash there. (The City Council tried to create a "separate but equal" rule but the City Attorney struck it down since it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.) 

Anyone who works with motivating people to maintain healthy lifestyles knows that rewards of social engagement and pleasure are essential, especially when people (often elderly) are coping with chronic health conditions that cause pain or other discomfort. Those who walk their dogs daily are motivated to get into the parks as part of their health management. Health care studies support this increased health outcome. Shouldn't the EBRPD pursue its commitment to "Healthy Parks, Healthy People"? It should not be creating barriers to exclude those who are particularly vulnerable to being shut out of society and parks—the disabled and the elderly.  

Any rule-making should take into account its full consequences for all populations. Our parks should welcome everyone to participate and share in both the natural experiences and in the people they meet there, and encourage walking for health for every part of the population.