The man and the river
Len Otto has a lifelong bond with the Sandy River. It’s where his earliest memories take place. Born in Troutdale, Otto grew up in a home on the Sandy, and has fished the river since he could walk. In his adulthood, he was a community activist who participated in work to protect the river. Now, his relationship with the river is almost spiritual.
“The river is coursing through my blood, let’s put it that way,” Otto said.
As the years turned to decades, 71-year-old Otto eventually became a part of demographic that nearly a third of Americans will join by the time they are 75, those with mobility issues. In fact, according to an analysis on census data by Pew Research Center, around 46% of Americans aged 75 and older reported having some type of disability.
“Pain has become a limiting factor in my life, and while nowhere near as extreme as many, many people, it is an issue,” Otto said. “But that is not what let me start writing letters to Metro about accessibility at Oxbow.”
In fact, it was Otto’s friends that inspired him. They were fellow fisherman with mobility issues, one due to a battle with cancer.
The steep ramp down to the boating dock at Oxbow was not ideal or safe for a wheelchair or other mobility device user to navigate. It was easier and safer for Otto and his friends to drive themselves to the bottom of the ramp. The problem was, they couldn’t park at the bottom of the hill. This forced those with mobility issues, like Otto and many of his friends, to be dependent on others to drop them off and pick them up from the end of the ramp.
So in 2016, Otto reached out to Metro looking for a solution. In a letter to Metro's Council, Otto made his needs clear, that Oxbow's boat ramp needed to be ADA compliant. He received a response that accessible parking spaces would be made available. It would just take time.
“I was frustrated with the timeline, but I do also understand that sometimes bureaucracy does take time,” Otto said.
Metro’s Accessibility Journey
Otto’s conversations about accessibility with Metro were before 2019 when Metro parks and nature hired Americans with Disabilities Act compliance program manager Will Cortez. Cortez was brought on to Metro’s parks and nature team with funds from the 2019 voter approved bond.
“And in that parks bond we'd set aside $11 million just to do ADA accessibility work,” Cortez said.
In 2017 Metro hired a contractor to do an Americans with Disabilities Act barrier assessment of all their parks. In 2019, Metro used the findings of the assessment to create their ADA transition plan, which outlines a strategy for removing physical barriers experienced by people with disabilities. Title II of the ADA requires that Metro’s programs of fishing and boating access each be made accessible, exactly what Otto wanted all along.
“We talk so much about the healing qualities of nature,” Cortez said. “Then again here we are granting access to only to those folks who have the physical ability to deal with the barriers that are in front of them.”
There are many reasons why natural areas and parks lack accessibility according to Cortez.
“There's this inherent ableism and the way we view people with disabilities, like assuming that they have a lesser quality of life or that they only have the right to a lesser version of life,” Cortez.
This historical, institutional ableism has led to many parks being built without accessibility in mind. But even as Metro parks and nature is working to change that, there are still challenges. Some locations can’t be made ADA compliant without completely altering the landscape . There is also a difficult balance in creating access to a natural area, while also avoiding impact to the area. Parks providers must find the middle ground between accomplishing goals of access and environmental sustainability.
“I think as an agency we're at a great place to continue to have these conversations with the community,” Cortez said.
When Cortez came onto the parks and nature team, he became the point person for the Oxbow accessible parking spaces, and the project finally started to progress. Metro worked with the community, including Otto and Adventure Without Limits, a non-profit that aims to provide access to nature for all to get the project off the ground. After a few years of planning, permitting, and construction, the parking spaces opened. But Cortez said going forward, accessibility should be a forethought.
“The root of all this ableism is that this is all socially constructed,” Cortez said. “We could have made these spaces completely accessible from the get-go.”
The parking spaces are completed
“There was relief that it finally had happened,” Otto said reminiscing of the day the spots finally opened to the public on Memorial Day.
After years of planning and construction the spaces were ready to serve the community. But the day came with strong emotions. One of Otto’s friends, who had been waiting for the spaces to open, did not live long enough to see the finished project.
But he witnessed others using the space with a sense of pride in having created something for his community; access to the river he has loved all his life.
“When somebody has access that did not previously have access, that's powerful that they, all of a sudden, can do what somebody else has always done,” Otto said.
In the last several years, accessibility has been an area of focus for Metro projects. Metro’s most recent ADA compliance work is happening at Graham Oaks Park. Cortez said it’s sort of a pilot project for what accessibility work at Metro parks could look like going forward. Projects include repainting accessible parking spots, making repairs to the Tonquin Regional Trail, leveling out the parking lot and connecting the bus stop to the trail head with an accessible path.
This work will conclude at the end of the year. People who visit Graham Oaks during this time may see detours to bypass work areas.
“We're going to back away and then we're going to apply those lessons learned to the rest of this park system,” Cortez said.
Funding from the 2019 parks and nature bond will help fund projects that focus specifically on accessibility. This summer, Metro funded several parks projects from other agencies that focus on accessibility through the Local Share program. Going forward accessibility will be at the core of planning new parks projects, like adaptive mountain biking at Newell Creek Canyon and Chehalem Ridge Nature Park.
This is exactly what Otto hopes to see in public spaces in the future: accessibility not being an afterthought, but an integral part of planning.
“When a project is at the very, very beginning of its planning, even at the inception of the idea, let's start thinking: ‘How can this apply to all groups?'"