The Wash
A pile of raked leaves sits in the street on the U Street Corridor. (Kimberly Cataudella / The Wash)

Disabled residents worry about leaf collection rules, delays

Many residents with disabilities – and city employees working on disability issues in the District – are concerned that leaf collection this fall is inaccessible for many.

Disabled residents in the District say they’re having trouble with the Department of Public Works’ requests for residents to rake their own leaves into their tree boxes to be vacuumed later. 

But the Department of Public Works, or DPW, is already behind schedule in the Shaw neighborhood, and leaves are sitting in wet piles after Monday’s rain, blocking walkways for longer than anticipated. Some residents say raking leaves in advance is pointless since a gust of wind can undo all their work, scatter the leaves and leave sidewalks littered with soppy foliage. 

“With leaf removal, [DPW has] to be careful about when and how fast they can do it with weather,” said Thomas Mangrum, a wheelchair-userIf you try to go on the leaves with a wheelchair, it can cause your tires to spin.”

Mangrum is co-president of Project ACTION!, a disabilities advocacy group in Washington. He uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility and expressed concern with piles of leaves being left around the city for weeks. 

DPW advises against raking leaves directly onto sidewalks or into the street. DPW is asking residents to rake leaves into tree boxes near the front of their property, that way, a vacuum can come by during a scheduled pick-up and suck the leaves away. 

Cesar Barreto, an Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator within the District Department of Transportation, said leaf piles bring about “valid accessibility concerns, as you can’t see a pothole, you can’t see if a sidewalk has a crack or you don’t know where the curb ramp is.” 

Barreto attended a webinar with The Wash two weeks ago, which was hosted by the DC Multimodal Accessibility Advisory Council and addressed residents’ mobility concerns. He talked about curbside management and told The Wash afterward he recognized how leaf collection could be inaccessible.

Along with mobility issues, wheelchair-users – and other disabled and elderly residents – are unable to rake the leaves themselves. Without the assistance of neighbors or friends, many cannot clean their yards, per DPW’s request.

ANC 5B Commissioner-elect Colleen Costello sent a couple of tweets to DPW asking how seniors and residents with disabilities would be expected to collect their leaves. DPW initially responded to say it doesn’t provide leaf-raking assistance. 

But when Costello followed up by email, DPW replied to say residents could use the “hardship collection services” program, for which disabled residents are eligible. 

The city’s website says this service is available for “residents who are physically unable” to collect and empty their own garbage and recycling containers. Applications for this service require proof of disability from a physician. 

“There are still a few things about the program that are unclear to me,” Costello told The Wash via Twitter. “DPW’s FAQ says ‘current’ program participants can get help with their leaves. Does that mean new enrollees can’t? And if someone wants to enroll, the enrollment form requires them to submit proof of disability. Does that mean non-disabled seniors are ineligible?”

The Wash sent DPW some complaints from residents with disabilities, asking for responses to their safety concerns. The city did not respond to these complaints and other clarification questions about leaf collection by press time.

Shaw resident Rachael Gass, a member of the disability community and a commissioner on the DC Commission on Persons with Disabilities, said residents in need should call the city’s 311 line to request raking. 

“I use them a lot. They’re really good at tagging for the right agency,” she said. “And many elderly people will benefit from this. Most are a part of our community.” 

The Wash filed numerous public information requests to learn how many leaf-collection and sidewalk-cleaning requests were received and fulfilled since early September. The city did not respond to the requests by press time.

Gass has a variety of disabilities, she said, and her extreme allergies make raking leaves difficult for her. Her housemates helped her rake her yard this year. 

“I am not a wheelchair user, but being a part of the disability community, I have a lot of colleagues and friends who are,” Gass said. “I know if you leave piles or bags of leaves sitting out, you’ve made sidewalks inaccessible. I see this being on par with snow removal and keeping sidewalks clear in the winter.” 

Changed raking instructions create confusion

DPW printed and mailed a pamphlet in late October to residents detailing leaf-raking and collection instructions, which have since changed. The pamphlet asked residents to rake leaves into paper bags, which DPW said it would provide.

But the city later changed its instructions without sending a new pamphlet to residents. This internet-only announcement confused many.

DPW sent conflicting information over Twitter, asking residents to check their mailed brochures for leaf-collection details while also saying paper bags were no longer needed. Numerous District residents replied with confusion, complaints and lots of questions

“The bagged leaf collection program was intended to minimize collection crews’ exposure to COVID-19 and encourage composting,” DPW wrote on their website. “Resuming the vacuum collection program will help simplify composting operations and maximize employment opportunities.”

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Kimberly Cataudella

Kimberly Cataudella (she/her) is covering Shaw and U Street for The Wash while completing her master's degree in investigative journalism at American University.

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