By Amy Carver, Walkable and Livable Communities Institute Project and Marketing Coordinator
My nephew, Christopher, is one half of a fraternal twin set. He was born two minutes and thirty seconds prior to his sister. Other than their genders, the other difference between the two siblings is that Christopher was born with Cerebral Palsy. Although the disease has impacted him having the proper use of his legs, and one arm it does not affect his mind, his ability to feel deeply or his sparkling personality.
He is fourteen now and growing like a weed; he is tall and lanky and because of this is already fitting into a full-size wheelchair. I do need to point out though, having wheels as his main mobility device has not slowed my nephew down. He played baseball for six years with his local Miracle League and rides a horse every Saturday (rain or shine) with a therapeutic horse riding group called Horse and Buddy. He creates signs with his sister to display at the mini-fundraisers he holds for the organizations he participates in and has also been known to occasionally DJ, on his karaoke machine, for neighborhood functions.
He has taken more than twenty cruises to exotic and tropical locations (and counting) and even manages to "spread smiles" from time to time with his family which entails stopping by a local business and leaving candy for their employees, just because they can. He is a normal, happy teenager (well most of the time, you know how teenagers can be) born to amazing parents. Yes, I'm biased, but it is true, his parents are absolutely amazing in every way.
Christopher’s modes of transportation are a manual wheelchair,or a Permobil C500, which is an electric wheelchair that elevates him into a standing position. He is dependent on his chairs to get him around his school, stores and sidewalks. These transports are the only ones he knows other than the arms of his parents who must occasionally lift him-and his chair-in order to navigate places that aren't as accommodating for wheelchairs. You see, through the years, his family has discovered that a great deal of places are not that simple to get around, even though they are touted as “accessible.” Some business entrances do not even have ramps. In fact, some historical places are not required to, and may have a step or two, or even three or more, in order to get to and from the door. For a person whose legs work properly, those steps are just a quick hop, skip and a jump, but to a father or mother who must push a 350lb wheelchair, plus the weight of their son, it is like trying to climb a mountain at a ninety-degree angle.
Some businesses are located away from the sidewalks and streets where he lives and visits. Many times businesses have doors that open out onto a narrow sidewalk that has very little room for a wheelchair to back-up and move around the door in order to enter. The sidewalks, themselves, do not always provide enough room for people to walk around him and his chair (especially when they are impatient). He finds that, at times, he must swerve near the edge of the sidewalk to avoid another pedestrian walking towards or from behind him. This can be very dangerous to not only Christopher, but to that person, as he does not want to hit them by accident. His natural instinct is to swerve, just like a driver in a car would, to avoid hitting them. There have been a few times when the wheel of his chair has nearly missed the edge of the sidewalk and because sidewalks are typically built 3-5” above of the pavement, he has almost had a nasty fall.
My brother-in-law recalled a related experience when he was attending an accessibility convention. A man was riding in his wheelchair on the sidewalk in front of him went over the edge of the sidewalk by accident while trying to steer clear of another pedestrian, which resulted in the man and his chair falling onto the street and hitting his head on the pavement. Bob mentioned that if the sidewalk had not been built so high or was sloped or maybe had a buffer in between the sidewalk and the street; that this accident could have been avoided.
Latest statistics provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that one in five Americans has a disability of some kind. According to their reports 2.2 million people in the United States depend on a wheelchair to navigate their daily lives and 6.6 million people use a can, walker, crutches to assist them with their mobility. My nephew is part of this community.
Unless you are in a wheelchair, spend a great deal of time with someone in a wheelchair, or live with a person in wheelchair, you would not quite understand how hard it is to navigate getting around even a simple-looking street. Let me tell you folks, it's not easy. Certainly, at home, you can make your house, apartment or condo more accessible, but it is so much harder to make the streets you live on or visit easier to navigate.
Christopher has traveled to major U.S. cities such as Atlanta, New York, Miami, Raleigh and Washington, D.C. This kids goes places; more places than I'll probably even see in my lifetime, but when I ask Christopher how he enjoyed his visits to some of them his reply is simple, but poignant; “I am disappointed when I cannot get into a store I want to visit and it makes me feel like people do not care about me, that I am not thought of.”
Visits to different areas require more research than an average person would do, as they need to figure out how they will get around. Christopher's dad, Bob, explained to me that there were some stores they would have loved to visit in New York specifically, but an entrance step, or multiple steps would deter them from going in. "There may have been an alternative entrance for us; however either it was completely out of the way or there was no signage to tell us where it was located. We combat that now by just simply bypassing the business and hopefully down the street there will be one we can access that is similar." Bob said.
Retrofitting may be difficult and/or expensive for older and historic buildings, but there are ways that are feasible to provide access for this population and their families. One such way is a foldable ramp, which does not have to be used all the time, just when a wheelchair user needs access. For buildings that provide separate accessible entrances, wayfinding signage would be appreciated. It can be a challenge just to try and find the location of an accessible entrance. “Some businesses may have accessible ramps, but they aren’t necessarily located in a convenient spot, which is fine, but signage on how to locate them would be helpful,” Bob said. These “special entrances” aren’t just for people in wheelchairs though, this also includes people who have other mobility challenges, including seniors who may be unable to climb the stairs.
When the WALC Institute conducts walking audits we suggest that people, especially traffic engineers and elected officials, experience the streets as pedestrians in a wheelchair. We feel that it is extremely important for the leaders to experience the streets as a pedestrian who has an impairment, so that they can understand and relate to a different perspective.
Bob explained to me, “When a developer [or business owner] goes out of their way to make a place more accessible, we take notice and will want to visit it more often because they make it easy.” Christopher’s family is finding that newer communities are embracing the “accessibility for all concept”, as the sidewalks have been built wider, with buffers between them and the streets, and they have more gently sloping features. The buildings are even more accommodating. In fact, this month Christopher and his family are going to move to a newer section of town where they are currently living because developers have put a great deal of thought into designing it for accessibility.
Christopher understands that life isn’t easy for anyone, but he has to factor in many other things that other teens do not have to when he leaves his home every day. People who use wheelchairs should also feel safe and welcome in their communities. It’s already tough. Designers should give a little bit of extra thought and make certain that our streets are safe and accessible for ALL pedestrians when designing them. Like my nephew stated, he just wants to be thought of, and from my family’s perspective, strides are being made, but there is still a long way to go.