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Monday, December 1, 2008

Vermont Easy Access

My son and I have just returned from a ski trip to Vermont over the Thanksgiving holiday. While my teenage son ignored me driving home, I thought about the difference between New York and Vermont. Suburban New York and New York City are hard places to live. Taxes and the cost of living in New York are outrageously expensive. In my estimation the trite old line, if you can make it New York you can make it anywhere, holds true. Given the hard nature of living in New York, I am always taken aback by how different Vermonters are. Sure I know the Vermont economy is based on tourism and people are paid to be be nice when working. But Vermonters strike me as uniformly polite and open minded.

I realize the above are sweeping generalizations, many exceptions exist and like all states Vermont has positive and negative aspects. Yet as a wheelchair user I am struck by how different Vermonters respond to issues of wheelchair access. For instance, most ski resorts have adaptive ski programs and welcome disabled skiers of all types. Ski lodges are far from 100% accessible architecturally but a good deal of thought has been put into getting around physical barriers. Beyond the slopes what draws me to Vermont are the small towns. It is in these small towns where one gets a sense of Vermont culture with their archetypical general store, church, and school. These towns that dot the landscape vary greatly in terms of wheelchair access. Some towns are hopelessly inaccessible. Yet what strikes me is that a sincere effort is made to include wheelchair access from a cultural point of view. That is, small town Vermont wants to be accessible. When the issue of wheelchair access comes up it is not just a matter of law, a legal requirement, but thought to be the right thing to do. To me, this highlights the difference between Vermont and other states such as New York. For example, at the Gap nearest to my home the newly renovated store is legally accessible. The rear and front entrance is accessible, a wheelchair lift is installed to enable me to go from the adult to baby Gap store, and changing rooms as well as the bathroom are accessible. Yet this Gap is by far the most inaccessible place to shop. The rear entrance is routinely blocked with stacks of boxes and merchandise. To enter here, one must press a buzzer and wait for an employee to move all the boxes that can be stacked very high. Because kids love to press the button employees always ignore the buzzer. Once inside, the wheelchair lift, changing room, and bathroom are all kept locked (only the hard to locate manager has the key). Once opened the wheelchair lift is used to store trash that must be removed. The accessible bathroom is just as problematic because it is used to store mops, buckets and cleaning supplies. Thus to shop at the Gap I must wait to enter, wait to use a wheelchair lift and bathroom and am entirely dependent upon a manager being present and available to help. I have complained to the store manager multiple times and sent email to Gap corporate about the multitude of problems. Nothing has ever been done and the Gap remains legally accessible but far from a practical place to shop as I know my business is not welcome.

This weekend I was thinking about the Gap when I went to a Vermont general store close to where we stay. I had been in the store a few times last ski season and liked the food that focused on locally produced products. There were multiple steps at the front but a rear entrance was wheelchair accessible. Like the Gap, the back door was blocked. My son entered the front and with an employee removed boxes so I could enter. I very politely told the employee that in my estimation the rear entrance was pointless if it was blocked. Amazingly, she agreed and said she would speak to the owner about the rear entrance and aisles in the store that were too narrow for me to navigate. Pleased by the response but skeptical I thought nothing would change. I was very wrong. My son and I were in the same general store this weekend and the rear entrance was not blocked. We entered and I immediately noted the aisles were much wider and I easily went to the front of the store where an employee asked if I had any trouble getting around. I told her not all and she said that was great because they had gone over the entire store and with a measuring tape to insure each aisle was 36 inches wide. In addition, the bathroom door was replaced and grab bars installed to insure it complied with the ADA. If there was anything else that they missed in terms of access she said she would appreciate it if I would let them know.

Obviously not all general stores in Vermont will be so pro active. In some instances making a general store accessible when it is 100+ years old and contains a butcher, deli, post office, movie rentals, gas station, and a myriad of other services is not practical. I know this as do the owners. But when access is "reasonable" this emphasizes a commitment that is all too rare. While the Gap and many other national brand name stores are legally accessible, that is they have met the letter of the law, they remain in reality grossly inaccessible. In contrast, the Vermont general store I described above wanted to be accessible legally and in reality. The general store valued my business and existence. It made the same "reasonable" effort as the Gap. Before I left the Vermont General store I told the woman at the register how great it was that the aisles were wide, the rear entrance really accessible and that an accessible bathroom was icing on the the cake. She laughed and said "You know aside from the fact it is the law it is just the right thing to do. Every store and building should be accessible because you have the right to enter". My son and I looked at one another in shock and when we were outside he said "Dad, imagine that a person that equates wheelchair access with civil rights. I told you not everybody that can walk is a bigot or dumb as a post".