Awareness Day

September 18, 2003 12:00 am
Chuck Phegley discovered entry ways that slope up toward the door can be hazardous. The tip wheels keep him from flipping over. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Chuck Phegley discovered entry ways that slope up toward the door can be hazardous. The tip wheels keep him from flipping over. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

From a wheelchair, every sidewalk crack is a canyon, every slope a roll away from moving traffic.

More than 10 employees from city, county and state agencies spent an hour touring downtown Baker City in wheelchairs Wednesday, experiencing just a few of the problems people with disabilities face day after day.

Two participants — Fred Warner Jr. and Libby Goben — were allowed to walk, but wore eye masks to hamper their vision and clutched a cane to find their way.

"I can't see anything at all. Absolutely nothing," Goben said.

The excursion was part of Awareness Day, organized by the Baker County Committee on Disabilities. This is the first time they have included vision impairment as part of the experience.

"This time they got the whole picture," said Arlene Shively, whose husband, Alan, is blind and deaf.

After plopping down in the borrowed wheelchairs, half the group rolled through Basche-Sage Place while the rest toured south on First Street.

It didn't take long for the awareness to begin.

One grasp and push of the wheelchair handles sends the chair sideways across the sidewalk toward the street.

The sidewalks — slanted slightly towards the street — require more forceful pushes from the street-side arm just to travel a straight line.

But the curb cuts — places where the sidewalk descends to the street — proved the most challenging.

"Uh-oh. Assistance," said Sheri Shaw as she struggled to roll up a crumbled curb, only to have one wheel fall in a hole.

Shaw works for Seniors and People with Disabilities, a state agency.

"The main thing is that it's scary," she said. "You're looking at that sidewalk and see every crack, every rock."

Just a tiny two-inch rise in a curb cut is enough to stop a wheelchair dead on its wheels.

Members of the Disability Committee followed along to assist — and offer advice.

"You get a running start," suggested Gene Fugit as participants tried to head up a short slope to a downtown doorway.

Even this didn't always help as the wheelchair-bound attempted to roll up to a business, pull open the door and propel themselves inside.

"Well, that's more work than I want," said Nancy Shark, propelling her wheelchair past an entryway.

Often their entrance was preceded by banging the chair against the door frame before maneuvering it through the opening.

"You need a 36-inch door to make it work," said committee member Toni Croghan. "You got to have room for your knuckles, too."

Most attempts were met by store employees or passersby who held open the door to ease the effort.

"People who walk around don't see these obstacles," said Lori Lien, Disabilities Committee chairperson, who has utilized a wheelchair for nine years.

"The thing that's most fearful for me is crossing the streets," she said. "Until you're in the chair and fully negotiating that obstacle, you're not aware."

The experience was especially frustrating for some.

"Some of those curbs, I would have been stuck there til someone came and helped me," Shaw said. "It made me feel like ‘Forget it. I'll just stay home.' "

But there was the independence issue, as well.

"You don't want to ask for help. I was determined to do it," Shaw said after negotiating down the sidewalk to the street.

Accessibility has gotten better since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, Lien said.

"So much of our town is older, and when they remodel they have to meet certain specifications," Lien said.

Plus, the Committee on Disabilities is more active in bringing awareness to accessibility problems, especially the need for more handicap parking spaces.

"We're viewed as more of an advocacy group that people can contact," Lien said.

For more information about the Committee on Disabilities, contact Lien at 523-2679.

The Committee meets every third Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Community Connection, 2810 Cedar St.