Shaun Stamper is fed up. The 27-year-old prep cook has used a wheelchair for the last two years, and he has already learned to maneuver around many small obstacles. However, there are many places in Boise that he finds completely impassable. At the downtown corner of 13th and Jefferson streets, which has no curb cuts or ramps, Stamper has to wheel into the street and up the block to find an acceptable spot to get on and off the sidewalk. Even worse is the no-sidewalk, no-ramp corner of Emerald and Garden, where Stamper got off a bus recently when he went to tell his plight to the disability legal advocates Comprehensive Advocacy (Co-Ad). Between the bus stop and the building, he said, a car passed by so close he could have touched it.
"I've been almost hit more times than I can count," Stamper says.
Once he was inside Co-Ad's office, the news was little better. The group told Stamper they sympathized with his plight, but they couldn't help him in his quest to force the Ada County Highway District to bring Ada County's sidewalks and street corners up to par with the standards set out in the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act. He'd already heard the same sentiment from the City of Boise, the Governor's Office and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"They said they'd like to fight this on their own personal time, but they can't represent me in a professional capacity," Stamper said. It looked more and more to Stamper that if a change was going to happen, it could only happen because ACHD wanted it to happen. But how to impart the gravity of Boise's sidewalk situation to an agency that is accountable to almost no one? Stamper felt he had only one choice left--to make a scene. He decided to stage a hunger strike.
If you just said, "Oh no, not another hunger strike!" you're probably thinking of Walter Bayes, the 67-year old Wilder man--and father of 16--who recently went on a 57-day (he claimed) fast in an attempt to force the Idaho Legislature to draft legislation stating that life begins at conception. They didn't. Luckily for Bayes, he changed the terms of his demands, and ended the strike on March 6 when South Dakota passed a law banning abortion. Stamper said he admired Bayes' resolve, even if he didn't agree with his politics.
Stamper's proposed fast, as he described it to BW on Thursday, March 30, departed from Bayes' in two major respects: First, his demand, that "ACHD signs a legally binding agreement saying they will start to fix this, they will start preparing and installing ramps by no later than the end of this year," sounded on its face to be not so far-fetched as Bayes'. After all, all Stamper wanted is a "start."
However, the second way that Stamper's protest differed is that he planned to also fast from fluids. That would bring the amount of time before Stamper's life was in serious jeopardy from dozens of days--legendary Northern Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands survived for 66 days in 1981 before dying, for instance--to ... well, not many. Many Web sites claim that an "average" person can last 11 days without water, but most medical experts put the cap around a week--and a miserable one at that. Stamper also said he made out a living will saying that if he ended up in the hospital, he could be given fluids but not nutrients.
Stamper said on Thursday that he had told some people--but not yet anyone at ACHD--about his planned strike, and had already met with plenty of scorn and concern. "Some of the people I've talked to, who know me, were really disappointed," he said. "They said, 'This is not the way you handle this.' I said, 'You guys don't understand. I've tried every olive branch I can think of.'"
Stamper set the date and location for his spectacle at Tuesday, April 4, starting at 6 a.m., at the corner of 13th and Jefferson. Between Thursday and that date, hundreds of people would march and listen to speeches in front of the Idaho Statehouse to commemorate the most celebrated political hunger-striker in American history, Cesar Chavez. Chavez fasted on numerous occasions, usually to object to the practices of the commercial fruit industry and to promote better pay and safer conditions for farm workers. Stamper didn't know about the planned march, but he smiled at the thought that he and Chavez shared a desire to risk life and health to draw light to the struggles of marginalized groups.
"I'll be honest: I don't want to die," Stamper said. "But this is an issue that is so morally wrong, somebody has to say, 'The line is drawn.' And sometimes it takes extreme and not understood actions to get it done."
So did Stamper's thorn branch work? By Monday, April 3, he had finally informed his target, ACHD, of his plan (an important element in any hunger strike), and he heard back from ACHD board member John Franden--on a Saturday, no less. And luckily, Franden's news was encouraging enough to persuade Stamper to strike the strike ... for now.
Franden told Stamper, and later told BW, that the ACHD had recently finished their three-year Pedestrian-Bicycle Transition Plan, complete with a survey of more than 19,000 local street corners and 1,400 miles of "pedestrian facilities." The no-brainer consensus, according to the plan: "ACHD needs to immediately revise and update their design standards to address current [Americans with Disabilities Act] rules."
The plan estimated the cost of bringing Boise's sidewalks up to code at $292 million, including $37 million to be dedicated to building new sidewalks and curb ramps in "high priority" areas. But in the short term, Franden said, the district will undertake 22 sidewalk and ramp construction and repair projects over the next year--including a complete overhaul of Stamper's nemesis corner of 13th and Jefferson in 2007. In the meantime, Franden says, the district is also looking to counterbalance its years of negligence by implementing temporary ramps at some corners.
Nearly as important for Stamper, the plan calls for ACHD to "convene a special advisory group to assist ACHD in the revision of local standards for sidewalks, curb ramps, driveway crossings and traffic signal control facilities to meet ADA requirements." The advisory group is supposed to be made up of developers, contractors, design/engineering professionals and ACHD staff, but Franden asked Stamper to be included on it as well.
"I'm very, very happy," Stamper said in response to the district's plans. "I don't know if this was something they had already planned, or if it was in reaction to what I let them know. I don't think there will ever be a way of knowing that. But at least they're doing something."
Of course, there is one way to find out if the prospect of Stamper's protest had moved the deadlines up--to ask the commissioner Stamper informed about the impending strike.
"No," Franden said simply. Asked what had caused the ACHD to stall for 15 years in bringing its sidewalks up to ADA code, Franden had another one-word answer:
To read the ACHD's Pedestrian-Bicycle Transition plan, visit www.achd.ada.id.us.