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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Another One Bites the Dust

I never cease to be surprised by curb cuts that line the side walks of American cities and towns. Two things in this regard mystify me. First, why do curb cuts exist at one end of the street but not the other. This creates a side walk to no where, a conclusion that is easy to reach. Second, in parking lots across the country curb cuts are routinely placed in distant if not bizarre locations. Handicap parking is located in one part of a parking lot and the curb cut in another area. People that use a wheelchair know all too well that the problem I am describing is not only aggravating but dangerous. Parking lots and roadways, the gutter in particular, are not places I want to traverse in my wheelchair. Yet I often must push my wheelchair along the gutter and across parking lots to get to where I want to be.

Readers unfamiliar with wheelchair access might think my comments are an exaggeration. I assure you they are not. In the last month two people that use a wheelchair have been killed. Their stories and death were not widely discussed or deemed all that news worthy. The two deaths I am referring to appeared in Newsday, a New York tabloid, shortly before Christmas and in a local Fayetteville paper this week. The people killed were Amelia Shean and Ranford Beckford. Both people used an electric wheelchair and died in the street gutter. What were they doing in the gutter? In Mr. Beckford's case that has not been disclosed, perhaps because he was allegedly killed by Laura Dean who was apparently drunk. Ms. Shean was killed because she was not eligible for paratransit and the bus stop nearest her home was relocated. Ms. Shean's daughter thinks her mother was killed on her way to the grocery store.

The above two deaths are far from unusual. They are as common as my use of road side gutters. Another all too common variable are dehumanizing headlines: "Wheelchair Crash", "Wheelchair Man Killed in Hit and Run", and "Wheelchair Struck and Killed". This is perfect filler and often relegated to newspaper page B 19. On a slow news day a photograph of a battered wheelchair will be published. What is rarely if ever reported is why the person, the human using a wheelchair, was using a roadside gutter. These deaths are unnecessary and bring to mind far too many close calls I have had navigating streets, parking lots, airports, and service stations. The danger is very real, the consequences deadly. Those unfamiliar with using a wheelchair simply do not care or do not appreciate the dangers involved. For example, to enter my son's elementary school a single curb cut exists. When my son was in elementary school this curb cut was regularly blocked by parked cars and buses even though it was well marked "No Parking". When a vehicle was in front of this curb cut it was impossible for a person using a wheelchair to get to the entrance. I was often stuck waiting in the parking lot and asked more than one stranger to enter the building for me and ask the principal to make an announcement that a car with the following license plate number was blocking the entrance. In the five years my son attended elementary school I would guess this happened twice a month. When I suggested to the principal that this was not acceptable and that a second curb be created I was stunned by her reply. She told me that "I do not mind making the announcement to have someone move their car". She went on to state that in her estimation the curb was well marked and that a secondary curb cut would be an "eyesore". The most disturbing aspect the principal's reply was that it was exactly what I expected her to say. The point I am trying to stress is twofold: first, people that use a wheelchair are grossly underrepresented when issues of access are discussed and decided. What may appear to be a "reasonable accommodation" to people that do not use a wheelchair is in fact quite unreasonable. People like the principal of my son's school, an educator no less, simply don't get it. Second, the lack of wheelchair access in particular and disability rights in general indicate the presence of people with disabilities remains out of the ordinary. This is a big problem because too few think about why people with disabilities are not present and active in the workplace, school system or use the mass transportation system on a regular basis. Disabled people are not present because they remain the most disenfranchised minority group in the country in spite of the fact they were granted equality when the Americans with Disability Act was passed almost twenty years ago. In short, those pesky curb cuts described by the principal of my son's school as an "eye sore" are the symbolic representation of a much larger civil rights issue--the equality denied people with a disability.


Jason Nolan said...

This is an interesting post. My disability doesn't impact on my mobility, so I've only become aware of the intensity of the difficulty helping a friend get over curbs in NYC and Copenhagen. I have started looking, in toronto for intersections that are not accessible, and I've not been able to find any, in the past 6+ months looking. You've now added a greater awareness when it comes to parking lots, which I'll add to the watching. I don't drive, so it is not an issue for me either... but the point is to be aware of more than what our own personal issues/needs are, IMHO. Thanks for it.

william Peace said...

Complicit, Certain cities are easily navigated. The center of cosmopolitan cities such as Toronto and Manhattan do indeed have curb cuts at virtually every intersection. Problems in terms of curb cuts arise as one travels further away from the most heavily populated areas. Suburbia is a mixed bag--some towns go out of the way to be accessible while others present significant architectural barriers. Please let me know about what you find in parking lots as awareness is indeed a key variable. I appreciate your observation about looking beyond individual issues. For real progress to be made in disability rights all people with disabilities must unit as a single political group.

Jason Nolan said...

Funny thing is that everything goes down hill when you move to the sub-urbs. Mobility issues are an obvious one, but the entire notion of suburbs was monocultural. In my understanding, the postwar suburban expansion was about places for people to commute to the big city. They were never conceptually designed for other people, regardless of how otherness is construed. It is funny, but I don't even include the suburbs in my thinking any more. If I can't walk around my world, it doesn't exist, any more. And I use the inclusive notion of walk, rather than merely moving by foot.

Strangely enough, Toronto blows manhattan away, down town. And Copenhagen just blows. I understand now why Copenhagen is like that, as their disability support structure's very different. I just thought Toronto would be behind manhattan.

william Peace said...

Complicit, Our views of suburbia are one in the same. I often joke with my friends suburbia is an intellectual and cultural wasteland. Yet, here I am living 40 miles due north of New York City. The foremost authority in my estimation on suburban culture is Herb Gans, a distinguished scholar at Columbia university. If you have not read his work it is outstanding.

I have not been to Toronto in many years but I agree it is a far more interesting city than New York. Downtown New York was taken over long ago by Disneyland and reminds me of a giant outdoor mall for tourists.

Cities are indeed meant to be walked. Humans in fact are designed for that purpose as well. To me, the only way to know a city is to walk it from one end to the other.

Becs said...

Last night, I was at a municipal building in a small town. The building is new, built within at least the last ten years. The front of the building features about twelve broad granite steps. Off to the right, behind lots of shrubbery, is the wheelchair ramp.

The back of the building has very bumpy pavers. Maybe three steps up and the wheelchair ramp once again off to the side.

Here's a problem I often see where there's a curb cut - if you hit that ramp at the wrong angle or too fast, there's no doubt you'll take a header.

(I've lived in a city. I've lived in the 'burbs. The burbs work best for me. The city area I lived in was the best I could afford at the time and I was not safe there. My apartment was broken into while I was asleep and more than once, someone came by casing the place. The burbs work for me.)

Jason Nolan said...

Becs, it is always what works for you. Your city is not my city. My burbs are not yours. If it brings satisfaction and happiness, it is the right place.

william Peace said...

Becs, You raise an excellent point: ramps to enter buildings are often shunted off to the side and hidden behind shrubs. I have also found such ramps are in poor condition and in the winter not cleared of snow. These back doors are often locked too. Incorporating a ramp into the architecture and landscaping can be done well. I have seen this add to the aesthetic appeal of a building. However, this is not the norm and I think architects either do not value and in some cases actually resent that wheelchair access must be incorporated. You are also correct that the way one approaches a curb cut and ramp is important. One time I was showing off for my son and going too fast when I hit a curb cut and took an impressive fall. I was not hurt but my ego was bruised.

My harsh views about suburban living are not the norm. Most people I know that own suburban homes are quite happy. A major factor here is finances. I could never afford the cost of living in NYC, it is the reason I moved to the northern suburbs. You also raise the issue of safety. I find it ironic that wealthy areas, i.e. safe urban settings, from my experience are accessible. Less desirable areas, i.e. poorer areas, are not. The demographics of disability clearly demonstrate the vast majority of people who have a disability are not wealthy and likely unemployed.

Kateryna of the Cenotaph said...

I myself have been in the gutter. Once, when trying to turn my brand new chair around due to a lack of curb cut at one side the entire thing shunted half way off the curb into the busy Highway. This was the first time I had cried in public, and, instead of helping me for the first half an hour while I was dangling and waiting for death, people honked, laughed, and called names out of their cars at me.

The only reason I am not dead? I was rescued by a construction worker who was hauling supplies. He blocked the entire lane, got out, and lifted me AND my chair onto the side walk, then, walked me to the other end, and gave me a driven escort home, following me to protect me from cars.

I no longer go out on the side walks of Albuquerque, it is too dangerous as over 80% of the side walks end without a curb cut, most have dangerous dips that send me into traffic even with my very powerful chair.

I went to a rummage sale at a church just three days ago and noted their ramp actually ended with a 12 inch curb, so that it was totally unusable. I threw a fit. It was not my greatest reaction but, I refused to spend money there. I was told that I must be a heathen to complain about their lack of access.

Does it make those who do not see the deaths, countless deaths, of wheelchair users thrust into these gutters as important heathens? I could care less about their religion but it does make them disgusting.