By BRENNA KNOWLES
Of the Baker City Herald
I am not strong enough to get across the street, says City Manger Gordon Zimmerman as he tries to navigate a borrowed wheelchair through downtown Baker City.
Zimmerman and a handful of other able-bodied city leaders took part in the Baker County Disability Awareness Day Wednesday, sponsored by the Baker County Committee on Disabilities.
By spending an hour traveling by wheelchair through the Baker County Courthouse and downtown Baker City, the participants were able to explore the infrastructure challenges that community members with disabilities face every day.
Some of those challenges include parking areas, bathrooms, curbs, street crossings, heavy doors, soft carpeting, sidewalk cracks, steep ramps and narrow aisles.
Committee chairman Lori Lien said the goal of the day was to increase the awareness of people who are in decision making positions.
Lien said she wanted to give city leaders a new perspective, and give the businesses a heads up.
Were coming in and doing this without warning, Lien said. We thought about giving the businesses a warning, but we want this to be as real to life as possible, and most businesses are really receptive.
Committee member Tonita Croghan said the event is primarily to give people experience with the everyday problems that are associated with riding in a wheel chair. Once they are aware of the problems, then we can work to solve them.
Before the participants started, Lien told them they were not allowed to leave their chairs.
People will be walking with you so you will feel how it is to trust your mobility with somebody else who may be a complete stranger, she said.
On his way from the courthouse to Main Street, Zimmerman tried to push his wheelchair over a large crack in the sidewalk. He said he felt frustrated and angered when he could get the wheelchair over the crack.
Its interesting when you step over cracks, you dont notice how big they are, he added.
Andrea Duby, an employee at Anderson Film and Photo, ran to help the participants in their wheelchairs when she saw them struggling with the heavy doors and the steep concrete ramp that leads into the store.
Duby also works at the Sam-O Swim Center. She said that many disabled people use the pool and struggle with the entrance and bathroom doors.
There are enough people who use the pool who have disabilities that something should be done about it. Duby said.
Vicki Valenzuela, coordinator of the Baker County Transportation and Traffic Safety division, explained a complication to Zimmerman at the U.S. Bank automatic teller machine.
If you turn sideways, you can reach the screen, but you cant cover the screen so that your transactions are secure, she said. And theres no mirror for people using the drive through. They cant see you.
Visibility is a separate challenge, Valenzuela said. When you are in a wheel chair, you are at the height of a child, she explained.
At the end of the wheel chair experience, participants filled out surveys and evaluated the accessibility of downtown businesses and the courthouse.
The businesses were able to receive immediate feedback from the evaluation.
Committee members and tour participants discussed their findings after the tour was completed.
Zimmerman said he had thought the city was doing a good job with handicap accessibility. But after his experience as a wheelchair-bound individual he said, I guess we arent.
As for the accessibility of Anderson Film and Photo and the Basche Sage Mall, Zimmerman said forget it.
But not all businesses failed. Zimmerman praised Pioneer Bank for its automatic doors and specially designed counter tops that are low enough to accommodate a person in a seated position. He also was impressed with Baker City Floral, where there was a handicap accessible bathroom, and displays were put in clusters with plenty of aisle space.
Store owner Richell Kekelis told Zimmerman she is very aware of the challenges faced by disabled individuals because her son uses a wheelchair. She said she organizes her store to accommodate everyone.
Zimmerman recommended that the experience should be shared with members of the Baker County Chamber of Commerce and Historic Baker City.
This is an ongoing concern which takes millions of dollars to make changes, he said.
Committee member Jon Crogan said, We need to put the builders in a wheelchair, to try all these things out before they are used.
Zimmerman said that building department inspectors cannot look at this from a code standpoint, but rather from a does this work? standpoint.
He earned some blisters and sore arm muscles from his experience, but he referred to them as his badge of honor.
In the fall, Lien said the Oregon Commission on Disabilities will hold a community forum in Baker City, open to all city leaders and community members. She said the committee is planning to sponsor another awareness day in the fall for people that missed the event.
Lien said funding is an issue for the committee. Repairing streets are just a bear. It doesnt feel like funds go in that direction.
Lien said her committee wants to see one street improved per year by adding sidewalk curb cuts that accomodate wheelchairs. Currently, you cant cross Main Street without wheeling into a sidestreet first, she said.
Well all try again next year, she said. Its a real challenge.
To join the committee or obtain more information about making Baker County better suited to the disabled community, contact Lori Lien at 523-9472.