09 August 2008

Fighting for Accessibility

Twenty years ago, I was 11. It's been stated many times before on here that I was diagnosed with JRA at the age of 7. It has a way of causing a child to grow up much faster than other children at times. Even so, I was not as aware of things then as the girl featured in this article is now. I also was not in a wheelchair at the time either, which might have made a difference. Now, because of my occasional use of a wheelchair, I am more aware of these issues. It's rather odd this article was published today. I did not receive it until this evening as an RSS feed from a local news outlet. SCNow covers the Eastern area of South Carolina. It is a partnership between one of our local television stations and some newspapers. The newspaper is not a Myrtle Beach paper though.
Accessibility for All

Jana E. Longfellow and Emily Childers

Published: August 9, 2008

The ability to walk down a sidewalk and enter stores and restaurants to shop is something that most people take for granted. But what if you use a wheelchair or a walker for mobility? What hindrances would you encounter? Can a wheelchair get in?

Many people with disabilities (and the people that love them) say it’s just too much trouble.

By the time you find a place to park your vehicle and remove the wheelchair/walker, you face the issues that most of the population do not notice, such as: curbs that a chair cannot wheel up; broken and uneven sidewalks; stairs instead of ramps; doorknobs that are too high to reach or hard to use when seated; doorways that are too tight; not enough turning radius at the entrance and interior of a store/business/ restaurant; or the non-existence of an ADA accessible bathroom.

How accessible is Downtown Hartsville? I thought it would be best to actually bring someone along on my walk about Hartsville, and found the perfect person to join me.

My partner in this investigation was Emily Childers, 11-year-old daughter of Duane and Audrey Childers of Hartsville. Emily has had Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (JRA) since the age of two and has had episodes of joint inflammation and pain that sometimes make walking unbearable. She has a unique perspective for wheelchair accessibility since she uses her wheelchair for only part of the time; the experience has made her a strong advocate for others, especially children and teens.

The article goes on to describe how the pair walked through downtown Hartsville, SC. It relayed their experiences in trying to cross streets, get in and out of stores, restaurants and other places of business. Ironically, one building that is a state office and therefore mandated under ADA rules to be accessible was one that wasn't. The article told how many places were not only accessible but the staff and business owners treated them well. The jaded person in me wonders though how many knew that an article was being written on accessibility and were doing that for show and how many others were sincere. I know that in the Myrtle Beach area, the bad experiences I've had far outnumber the good ones. Business owners need to pay more attention to the buying power of handicapped people though.
This group has $175 billion in discretionary spending power, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That figure is more than twice the spending power of American teenagers and almost 18 times the spending power of the American "tweens" market.
(source: Reaching Out to Customers with Disabilities )

I was considering today how I'd been treated on recent shopping trips while in my wheelchair. I was also thinking of what happened when I called a local restaurant to inform them that we had stopped to eat at their restaurant. Part of the deal when giving me the prescription for my wheelchair was that I not use it for short distances, something I fully agree with. I simply use it for longer shopping trips or when the amount of walking needed to do an activity would stop me from that activity. With my wheelchair, I have no excuse that going somewhere I'd otherwise find fun would "cost" too much in physical pain, fatigue etc. I can get out more often with it. But, I will not rely on it for short distances. And the distance from a parking space into a crowded restaurant definitely qualifies as short.

Unfortunately, this restaurant has their handicapped parking spaces located at the BACK of their building. Granted, there is great ramp access if you're in a wheelchair. But, the length and grade of that ramp would have been way too much for me to walk that particular evening. All spaces closer to the door necessitated walking up 6-8 steps, which were unfortunately also too steep for me. On a better day, it might not have been an issue for me. Anyway, I called to speak to a manager. Unfortunately, I had not realized the time and when I looked, I decided just to ask when a good time to call back would be as I knew it was the begining of lunch rush. The staff member I spoke to was polite and mentioned a time. When I later called back, I asked for the manager and was again treated well. When I spoke to the manager, I first wanted to make sure he was not overly busy. I am mindful of that because I have been in the service industry. I've been in retail. So I do see both sides of the issue. This man was extremely polite. Listened to my concerns and said that likely no one had ever considered people who are handicapped and have walking difficulties but are not in a wheelchair. He assured me he would pass on my concerns to the owner. I actually thanked him for being so nice about it. For not giving me the attitude I've faced in other places in this area.

I've been ignored while in my wheelchair, with store staff speaking over my head to my husband...when I am the one asking questions. I've been told that the store was in compliance with ADA standards when I couldn't fit through aisles. My wheelchair is not 36 in wide and ADA standards state asiles should be at least 36 in. I've had store staff actually laugh at me for struggling through aisles and banging my hands on racks. In that case, the staffer also asked how I was and when my reply was "not good, I keep hitting my hands on the racks" she had the nerve to laugh again and then say she thought I was joking with my husband. Believe I was not in any way sounding like I was making a joke. This person also made us request a bag for our purchase, was offended when I got angry and told her how I felt about her laughter and then told us "God doesn't like you either" or some such piece of crap. She then followed us to the front of the store but told her boss she was trying to make it easier for us to leave, that she was going to open the doors for us. Except I am curious how she was going to do that when my son was in front of me and my husband was behind me and we could barely get through between the racks. Was she going to shove us out of the way to get to the door? The funny thing about this incident: It was in a Christian clothing/bookstore. Yep, real great Christian values there.

Anyway, I had thought today that someone needed to write a story on this. I can write my opinions and feelings from the standpoint of someone actually in a wheelchair. But to the "mainstream" I'm just another bitter handicapped person who thinks everything should be handed to me. The flaw in that is I'm generally not bitter; although with enough treatment like I have had in the past I could easily become so. And I definitely do NOT think I need everything handed to me. No one "owes" me anything just because I am handicapped. I do however expect businesses to comply with the law. Unfortunately, in this area, you are considered less than second class by many if you are handicapped; so the thinking seems to be "why should we do as the law says when handicapped people do not matter?"

Stories like the one below though, give me hope that there are others who are advocates. It also gives me hope that our future is not as bleak as many would like to make it out to be. That not all of our children are slackers. I find it brave that an 11 year old is fighting for her rights and the rights of others. It does make me wonder though; why it takes an 11 year old. Where are the adults who should be fighting for these same rights? I know I am. Are you?

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