When the American’s with Disability Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, it was met with plenty of excitement from and for disabled people everywhere. As I have repeatedly illustrated by the stories I have shared so far, it is obvious that urban planners and architects need to navigate the world in a wheelchair to fully comprehend all the roadblocks that still exist.
I thought Dave would finally be able to safely drive on the sidewalk after the ADA was enacted because, I assumed all curbs at corners would be cut-out to provide wheelchair access. What can I say? I was twenty-something years young…and oh so naïve about the machinations of government agencies at that point.
First of all, you need funding and lots of it to run around town, any town, carving into and reforming cement curbs and gutters. So if you live in a city on the brink of bankruptcy like San Bernardino, it wouldn’t have mattered if Dave were the Mayor; our corner was not going to be getting any modifications any time in the near or foreseeable future. Ok, so there is the budget consideration. Point taken.
Then if you find funding from somewhere, there is the planning consideration as to which curbs are a priority, then the commission of said work. It sounds much simpler as I write than it is.
These two hurdles are examples of more infamous red tape than you can imagine. My initial excitement simmered down almost completely after absorbing the reality of what it takes to make things happen for a minority group.
I started to see curb cut-outs in other cities like Los Angeles, where I worked way, way, WAY before they began happening in San Bernardino. It wasn’t that big of a surprise; obviously, LA has a much bigger tax base, more people, more of everything, things were visibly changing, things were happening, and I was glad.
When I saw my first cut-out in San Bernardino, it made no sense to me. It was in a part of town that had zero foot traffic. ZERO. It was a neighborhood. There were no destinations anywhere within that neighborhood. People don’t walk and even less roll around out in the world for the hell of it in a broke-ass, gritty town like San Bernardino. The majority of humans simply do not move about the place without the protection of an entire car surrounding their bodies.
By comparison, where we lived was not that far from Highland Avenue, a business district, and bus stops on E street were also nearby. There was ALWAYS a great deal of foot traffic every day and evening on Arrowhead Avenue in front of our house. OH! PLUS the Catholic Cathedral, and school were directly across the street. There was school drop-off, pick-up, and church Saturday afternoon and hourly services on Sunday until noon. Hundreds of people every hour on ‘church and school days’ walked about and crossed the street. It is a BUSY corner. I probably should have called someone to complain, but that was not really our style. Instead, we just bitched amongst ourselves, ok, it was only me who bitched about it. The city will get to it eventually. Probably.
I have to say, I was still a little excited to see cut-outs begin showing up even in those stupid random locations, even if not in front of our house, with the most visible human who used a wheelchair in town, but whatever, they were making progress. Surely our curb was on the list to be reconfigured soon. Eventually. Probably.
I commented with some excitement upon seeing a new cut-out somewhere near our house, with Dave; he nodded in a less enthusiastic response. He already had seen the cut-out I described and asked if I noticed anything wrong with it? I wasn’t sure what he meant. He explained, well, if you actually use the ramp like I would, once you reach the top, you will run into a fire hydrant that is placed where? Yes, on roughly every corner, so right in your path, basically blocking access in another way, rendering the ramp useless. My response was, “Ohhhhh… that was not well thought out at all. What a completely dysfunctional waste of time and money,” He rolled his eyes as he nodded in agreement.
Once Dave pointed out the laughably disappointing curb cut-out with the fire hydrant, I began seeing impassable curb cut-outs everywhere. Sometimes a telephone pole, traffic signal, or light post was the offending roadblock if not a hydrant but seriously…they were everywhere. Nice job, guys. SO close! This is an example of why I loathe those “That’s not my job” type of employees. We have to look beyond our specific job to see how every step of a process is connected to make things work well together. Living with a paralyzed person for decades trained me to look further down the horizon for obstacles than many people, I suppose, does it show?
Designated Wheelchair Sections:
Another design fail, the wheelchair section at concerts at the Forum in Los Angeles was directly behind the stage. Um…ya, you are plenty close, but the artists have their back to you. We saw Phil Collins this way; he is a drummer, so he was situated at the back of the stage right in front of us; yes, we still managed to enjoy the music. While it was not uninteresting watching a talented drummer from behind like that, being able to see his drum kit the way he saw it, I still would have liked to have seen his face for paying the same price as everyone else.
Another design flaw in the world of public spaces, for the longest time, the “wheelchair section” in a movie theater was in front of the front row, which we all know is way too close, to begin with but in front of THAT row. Dave loved going to the movies and dealt with that as he did everything else; he just laughed at the thoughtless design. I could not sit up that close with him and joked that he was going to get a stiff neck or go blind, to which he also laughed. He was a good audience that way too.
The most EPIC design flaw ever was on a passenger train. Dave decided he wanted to visit a friend who lived in Camarillo. He could take a train from San Bernardino there and back on the same day. Without using the internet, he made some calls to figure out if there was a station near his friend Karen’s house-the same Karen as the Newport Beach Secret Service drama.
So he planned his trip and made his way on wheels down to the train station, probably five miles from our house again, in a very sketchy part of a gritty town. He bought his ticket, and when he attempted to board the train, there was no place for him in the car. He had to ride all the way in that space outside, between the train cars. It was drafty in that space, so, almost like riding in the back of a pick-up truck for roughly 111.5 miles at speeds faster than the freeway speeds at some points. Not faster in time, it takes much longer between four and five hours each way but turbulent exposure to the elements for sure.
When he returned that evening, he was in a dangerous state of dysreflexia, which is a condition that affects those with spinal cord injuries, specifically above the sixth vertebra, like Dave’s. Several things can cause this potentially deadly autonomic nervous system response; one of these triggers is exposure to cold temperatures. He had grown incredibly cold from the exposure on the way home that night. It caused all of his muscles to respond by clenching. This made it impossible for him to pee, which caused his blood pressure to spike dangerously high, like over 200, and his heart rate to drop dangerously low. Yes, dysreflexia can be deadly, and we were lucky that my parents knew how to deal with it. They warmed him as quickly as possible, allowing his muscles to relax enough, which made it possible for him to be able to pee, which automatically dropped his blood pressure to normal. However, the following day of recovery was like that of having had a concussion. So, yes, danger averted but can’t we just design better access for everyone? It is a bigger deal than you think. Dave was a brave and adventurous spirit, but he never wanted to travel by train again.
He never mentioned this scary experience as he simply wasn’t built that way. My mom told me the next day when I went to barge into his room as I always did to hang out, she stopped me and explained he didn’t feel well and why. Later that evening, when I could tell he was better, I joked about him surviving as a vampire out in the sunlight, not because it has anything to do with sunlight; it is what we jokingly called dysreflexia because it sounds like you can’t see your reflection, you know like vampires. He just laughed and said, ya, that was a LONNNNNNNG cold ride home.
Handicap Parking stalls initially were thoughtfully positioned near the entrance of a business, but thoughtlessly were otherwise treated like every other parking space in the lot. Dave’s wheelchair lift in his last van unfolded from the side door. Yes, the stall was close to the front door of the business, something he didn’t need since he could tirelessly wheel himself just about anywhere, but finding a parking spot that had enough room on the side of the van so that he could safely get out without causing a traffic jam was a very real problem. I will theorize that you all know how impatient people are when they have to wait for anything, let alone having to wait one extra minute in a car in a parking lot. Ya, that was not fun. I am stoked with the latest iteration of handicapped-accessible parking spots with wide space on the side-we are improving our vision of looking out for others beyond one step of the process.
I used a bathroom in one of my favorite restaurants that had moved to a new location in a brand new building in 2008. Almost twenty years after the ADA had been passed. I used the handicap-accessible stall because it is always the best right? Anyway, there I was sitting on the toilet in this enormous stall. There was an appropriate handrail to my right, but the toilet paper dispenser and other handrail were about four feet to my left. NBA basketball players do not have arms long enough to beckon toilet paper from that distance, let alone a person who uses a wheelchair. Imagine someone having to get themselves over there while needing to clean their ‘down theres’ with their clothes down, then having to get back to the toilet and pull their clothes back on.
Needless to say, I had a chat with the manager. My friend Angela was with me and was surprised that I spoke up about it. “Are you kidding me? Most people NEVER have a second thought about any kind of handicap access unless you point it out to them.” She, too, had not thought about it, because she like most people don’t have any reason to think about what this or any process in the daily life of any person who is disabled looks like, let alone how far anyone would have to reach to wipe their ass in that place, until then. That conversation is the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks about that restaurant. “I will never forget that time you told the manager his brand-new bathroom was not ADA compliant with how far you had to reach for the toilet paper.”
The Americans With Disabilities Act has made headway, but it still has a long way to go. Dave used to say, if you design a building with access to people with disabilities, you include everyone.
UPDATE: I was shocked to see a crew working on a curb cut-out in my mom’s general neighborhood, around the corner, and up the street, the corner of Alexander and D Street, again, not a heavy foot traffic area, but hey, progress. That was roughly two years ago, and SUPRISE almost 30 years now; the ADA has been in effect. My parents’ former corner of 25th and Arrowhead Avenue is still a very, very busy corner, and still has no curb cut-out, is not remotely ADA compliant. I am rolling my eyes for Dave here. It’s fine. It’s FINE-the passive-aggressive response is all me.
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