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Photo by Steven Dahlman

(Above) Steps and handrails on the Riverwalk’s sloping River Theater. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

Riverwalk an obstacle course for visually impaired

13-Aug-15 – Despite assurance from the city that the Riverwalk is “fully accessible” to Chicagoans with disabilities, the newest stretch from State Street to LaSalle Street is a three-block obstacle course to the visually impaired.

Hazards that keep even sighted Riverwalk visitors on their toes could be dangerous to the visually impaired, as one of the Chicago River’s most visible characters found out last month.

Vincent Falk, a retired computer programmer and performance artist who has been legally blind since birth, says he wound up with one leg in the Chicago River after walking down steps at River Theater he assumed led to another pathway. The steps actually lead directly into the river.

(Right) Falk stands on the last step above water on stairs leading down to the river from the Riverwalk west of Clark Street.

Photo by Steven Dahlman

Falk was able to climb out of the river but the close call has left him leery of the new Riverwalk and concerned about how safe it is to visitors both sighted and visually impaired.

On a recent tour of the Riverwalk, Falk pointed out to Loop North News hazards at virtually every step, particularly at River Theater, where the spectacle he almost became would have upstaged his usual performances, dancing in loud suits on Chicago River bridges to the amusement of passing tour boats.

Photo by Steven Dahlman Along Marina Plaza, shorter flights of steps are intended for convenient access to the Riverwalk from boats. To the visually impaired, says Falk, they seem like steps leading to more of the Riverwalk. Some of these steps, which lead directly into the river, have nearby handrails but not all of them.

“If they’re going to have all these staircases,” asks Falk, “why don’t they all have handrails? Maybe those that don’t have handrails, they should just block them off.”

(Left) Falk holds onto a handrail along Marina Plaza, the stretch of Riverwalk between State and Dearborn Streets.

The spacing of handrails, according to Falk, is inconsistent, particularly at arguably the most dangerous stretch – along River Theater. The Riverwalk room has large steps that invite the public to sit and two ramps that lead at angles from the Riverwalk up to Wacker Drive.

Falk says the spacing and rise of the steps reminds him of the bleachers at U.S. Cellular Field. The biggest difference, he says, is that the bleachers have handrails.

“Those stadiums, if there’s a gap in the guard rail, that’s an actual step, a normal step. You don’t have a six-foot drop.”

(Right) Falk on steps near the top of River Theater.

Photo by Steven Dahlman
Photo by Steven Dahlman Other hazards along the Riverwalk, pointed out by Falk, include…

  1. Walking down the concrete stairs on the west side of State Street, and on four other stairways, there is no handrail on the right side of the stairs.
  2. When the stairway ends, there is a gap of a few steps before a handrail is within reach.
  3. Trip hazards caused by narrow strips of paving (left), slightly elevated that separate pathways of different heights. Some of these strips have yellow “caution” markings, but not all of them, and they are entirely useless to the visually impaired.
  4. Other spots along the Riverwalk where not much separates the Riverwalk from the river.

In April, a spokesperson for Chicago Department of Transportation said the Riverwalk would be “fully accessible” to people with disabilities, although examples given at that time did not appear to address issues of the visually impaired.

“Access for people with disabilities,” said Mike Claffey nonetheless, “has been a key consideration in the design from day one.”