Road Access for Disabled Americans

The segment of this article which deals directly with roadway access is highlighted. However, to get a better understanding of the frustration generated by being confronted with barriers and deterrents to access on a day-to-day basis, read the entire piece.

October 1, 1998




Sometimes I feel like a short rat caught in a maze. Take today. I had plans to meet a friend for lunch and do a few errands on the way. It all started out just fine, but then I encountered some all too familiar obstacles along the way...

Down the sidewalk I start in my red, power wheelchair. It's a beautiful day and it feels great to be able to be outdoors. But wait! What's that up ahead? turns out to be a car sticking out of a driveway, smack in the middle of the sidewalk.

Isn't that against the law? Think so, but I can't do anything about that now or go up on the porch to ring the bell and ask the owner to unblock the sidewalk. So I head down a driveway and into the street. That means going over a speed hump that jars my back and neck. It hurts. I can't help but feel angry when I realize that some blind people would have bumped into the car and anyone who is blind would have been endangered walking into the street in order to get around the car.

Still, I try to recover the joyfulness I felt starting out. Little did I know that was just the first detour of the day.

I need to stop at the bank. The door is too heavy so I wait for someone to come out. I wish there were an automated door so that I could go in and out by myself like everyone else. Finally I'm inside ... only to find out that all the tellers' windows are way too high for me and the accessible window is closed. I feel like Alice in Wonderland. The world is just too tall and I can't reach the key. I wait. I complain. I wait some more. Finally, the accessible window opens and I cash my check.

I decide to have some decaf and refocus at a new espresso bar. The door is light. The problem is that it only opens on the right side and I need to use my right hand to work the controls on my chair. I have to keep trying to grab the door, grab my controls, grab the door again. Eventually, I manage to pry it open and squeeze through, all the while wishing for a world without doors.

With my coffee to go, I wait at the bus stop and have a good time chatting with everyone else. When the bus arrives the driver tries to operate the wheelchair lift, but guess what ... it doesn't work. Everyone else boards. The driver apologizes and calls his supervisor. Now I'm running late. I'm the only one who needs to wait another 20 minutes for the next bus.

At last I'm downtown. That's when my steering talent comes into play as I slalom to the restaurant where I'm going to meet my friend. There are tables and chairs dotting the sidewalk in front of cafes. There are newspaper racks lining the curb. Planter boxes stick out. Stores have sandwich board signs sitting on the sidewalk. There's a bike locked to a tree and two more rapidly heading my way up the sidewalk. Up the sidewalk? Can't the bikers read? I've seen signs that clearly say bikes should be walked on the sidewalk.

"Excuse me. Excuse me. Whoops. Hey, guys, let me pass. Excuse me." Finally I'm at the restaurant.

The day's adventures are not yet over, of course. The waitress hand my friend, who is blind, a menu that isn't in Braille. What is he supposed to do with it? She also places water directly in front of him and doesn't let him know it is there. The water goes flying. The bathroom is labeled accessible that is, it has a kick plate so it is easy to open the door and a stall that is wide enough. However, the soap is high on the wall behind the sink and I can't reach it. Ditto for the paper towels. I dry my unsoaped hands on my sweatshirt.

Before the day is done, I get stuck in a narrow aisle in a card shop between a variety of protruding displays and goods stacked on the floor. The display falls over. My embarrassment is matched by frustration as I watch the store manager restack everything exactly as before, all the while ignoring my suggestion to maintain a clear aisle as required by code.

When I finally make it home, I feel like I've been through an Olympic event. Where's my Gold Medal or, at least, the chunk of cheese at the end of the maze?

Karen Craig is chair of the City of Berkeley's Commission on Disabilities. She became an activist for the disabled when she first needed to use a wheelchair and realized there were few curb ramps allowing access between sidewalk and street.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

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