Daily Travel


Greg Livadas profiles John Bateman-Ferry, Luticha Doucette, and Victor and Christopher Hilderbrant, on life post-disability in Rochester, NY.

Doucette recently visited a new car dealership in Henrietta. They displayed a wheelchair symbol at one entrance, but it didn't have automatic door openers (which aren't required by the ADA).

"Having that sign there is very misleading," she said. "When I see a newer building, there should be as much accommodation as possible. That frustrates me when they don't do that.

"People who have disabilities want to get around like everyone else."


Wheelchair access: Many venues comply but problems remain

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(October 8, 2006) — John Bateman-Ferry views the world from a different perspective than most adults: one often filled with curbs, stairs and high counters.

Since suffering a spinal cord injury in 1978, every door, cracked sidewalk and narrow parking spot makes him think about how he's going to get his wheelchair to where he wants to be, whether it's a restaurant, a theater or just across the street.

"I'm always looking ahead," he said. "Am I going to be able to go from one side of the street to the other?" A curb more than 2 inches high, for example, would be a problem for him to push his wheelchair over. Others using electric wheelchairs or scooters might have trouble crossing a barrier of one-quarter of an inch.

A Democrat and Chronicle reporter, investigating the challenges facing wheelchair users when they go out in public, followed Bateman-Ferry, 46, of Victor and Christopher Hilderbrant, 30, of Greece to a dozen local venues. They found problems ranging from the inconvenient to the dangerous — crumbling curbs, bathroom stalls too small to use and hot water pipes that could burn legs.

In our survey, even a simple visit to the zoo's new elephant exhibit was a chore. Returning to his car, Bateman-Ferry needed to be pushed uphill because the slope was too steep for him to maneuver it himself.

Merely using the sidewalk was hazardous: Potholes and broken glass could puncture wheelchair tires.

The trips illustrated what disabled people already know: Although nearly all of the venues complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, many could be safer and more accessible.

Other findings:

# Restroom doors were at times difficult to open, faucets can be hard to turn on, paper towels can be out of reach and uninsulated pipes under sinks can burn legs.

# While the ADA requires bathroom stalls to be 60 inches wide, that remains too narrow to allow someone to pull alongside a toilet in a wheelchair, rendering the toilet useless to many wheelchair users.

# Ramps providing access to some buildings are steep.

# Some designated wheelchair spaces in theaters are on an incline, which would make wheelchairs roll and their users tip forward. Not every wheelchair has brakes.

Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, who has heard complaints of poorly plowed sidewalks, vows to better understand the importance of accessible sidewalks this winter. He plans to get in a wheelchair after a snowfall to see how navigable city walkways are.

But, for those who use a wheelchair every day, snow isn't needed to make Rochester a tough place to navigate.

Luticha Doucette, 23, of Henrietta has used a wheelchair since being injured in a car accident when she was 22 months old. She's seen improvements in accessibility in the past few years, "but it's not where I'd like it to be."

Older buildings remain inaccessible for her. She'd like to visit more nightclubs in Rochester, but most have stairways with no ramps or elevators. Some wheelchair entrances are the service entrances or loading docks.

"Sometimes my friends will scout out a place ahead of time," she said.

Doucette recently visited a new car dealership in Henrietta. They displayed a wheelchair symbol at one entrance, but it didn't have automatic door openers (which aren't required by the ADA).

"Having that sign there is very misleading," she said. "When I see a newer building, there should be as much accommodation as possible. That frustrates me when they don't do that.

"People who have disabilities want to get around like everyone else."

Getting around

Driving his car with hand controls, Bateman-Ferry always looks for the blue handicapped logo designating automatic doors or elevators, ramps and accessible parking. After parking on Broad Street, he reached to his back seat and grabbed his wheelchair frame, then its seat cushion, and placed them on the ground outside his car door. Then he got the right wheel and snapped it on the frame, and did the same with the left wheel. He slid from behind the steering wheel to his wheelchair, then closed the car door and looked for a curb cut to get to the safety of a sidewalk.

At times, that safety is several car lengths down the street past oncoming traffic.

Bateman-Ferry endures this routine each time he drives somewhere, and it adds a few minutes to his commute.

The battle wasn't over once he reached the sidewalk, however. The sidewalks along Broad Street near South Avenue were crumbling, leaving loose pieces of concrete and holes.

"This is western New York. I understand we have weather issues," Bateman-Ferry said. "But that (chunk of loose concrete) is either going to break your ankle or stop my wheelchair."

The bumps were so severe that Bateman-Ferry had to alternate pushing his wheels and holding on to a bottle of water and notebook he carried on his lap.

"This is the bane of my existence, trying to carry stuff," he said. "This is as bad as not having a path of travel."

A need for access

Nearly one in five Americans — more than 51 million — suffers from some form of disability, with 12 percent having a severe disability, according to the U.S. census. Of those, 2.7 million people age 15 and older use a wheelchair, and it's a number that is expected to rise as medicines improve, allowing people to live longer with disabilities.

A 2004 American Community Survey by the Census Bureau showed more than 84,000 people, or 12.5 percent of Monroe County's population, living with a disability. That survey does not include people living in nursing homes or residential schools.

Locally, no census has ever been taken to determine how many wheelchair users there are. Some may not want to be identified, for fear of becoming targeted.

"There hasn't been any real effort," Hilderbrant said. "It took advocacy just to get us included in the 2000 general census."

And the needs of wheelchair users may put other disabled people at a disadvantage. A curb cut that helps a wheelchair user may pose a problem for a blind person walking with a cane.

Bateman-Ferry, who lobbied for the passage of the ADA, witnessed the law being signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The ADA was intended to prohibit discrimination against the disabled in employment, access to local and state government agencies and their programs, and public access to businesses.

Bateman-Ferry says a major gap remains in terms of employment of the disabled, but he has seen many more buildings become accessible in recent years.

Hilderbrant, who is director of advocacy for the Center for Disability Rights, says new construction with aesthetic designs such as cobblestones may be viewed as improvements to some but make traveling in a wheelchair difficult.

Hilderbrant and others who are disabled have been consulted for major projects in advance, such as PAETEC Park. Any new construction needs to follow the ADA's accessibility guidelines, which often are copied for local building codes for minimum requirements.

"PAETEC was built better than code," Hilderbrant said. "We were asked to consult with the designers. Living the experience, we knew it could be better than code."

A family bathroom was installed, which would be easier for an attendant to take someone in a wheelchair to the bathroom, and handicapped parking spots were redistributed to provide accessible parking in useful areas, Hilderbrant said.

The law requires "reasonable accommodations" to provide equal access, but a small business that doesn't have access for a wheelchair would not be required to build a ramp or install an elevator if it proved to be a financial hardship.

A store, for example, doesn't have to have all merchandise where it can be reached from a wheelchair, as long as a store employee is available to get an item upon request.

When attending a sporting event or going to a theater or a restaurant, Bateman-Ferry wants to sit next to his family. Will they be able to sit together? Will he have to sit in an aisle? Those questions are always on his mind.

Emergency exits

Most able-bodied people figure there will be an easy exit from a theater or business in case of emergency. But if you're in a wheelchair, getting out isn't an option if you have to rely on an elevator during a fire. On Sept. 11, 2001, Bateman-Ferry was in Ronald Reagan National Washington Airport, preparing to fly home after a presentation he made in Washington when he saw the World Trade Center burning on a TV in an airport lounge.

"The airlines announced a ground stop and we should wait for more information. Then we were ordered to evacuate," he said. "As a wheelchair user, I got no specific information or direction as how to exit."

A police officer told him not to use an elevator, but he did. "It was a big risk, but my senses told me to get out," he said. "I was the last person I saw leaving the airport. It was an uneasy feeling."

Outside, he could see and smell the Pentagon burning. He took a train to where relatives picked him up hours later.

Locally, public buildings such as the Hall of Justice warn visitors to take the stairs in case of an emergency. For wheelchair users, they would have to wait in the stairwell for help, or crawl down the stairs if they were able to.

Some local theaters give wheelchair users an option of transferring into a stationary seat. Hilderbrant may opt to sit in a theater chair, but he won't let the ushers move his wheelchair away. It's almost a part of him, and if he needs to leave in a hurry, he wants to have it nearby.

Slow improvements

Sarah Gilmour, a Henrietta lawyer and CDR board member, recalls only two local lawsuits involving violations of the ADA on accessibility for wheelchairs. As a result, ramps were built at a Rochester restaurant and Irondequoit physical therapy office.

Gilmour, who has used a motorized scooter for 20 years, said she has seen more awareness about accessibility issues over the years.

"It used to irritate me you could go down the sidewalk and take a curb cut to get into the street and there may not be a curb cut on the other side of the street," she said. "Now it's more consistent."

Still, problems exist. Parking lots that aren't level make it difficult to unload wheelchairs. And parking spots aren't always wide enough to allow a door to fully swing open, especially if a wheelchair van and ramp are used.

But Gilmour said most businesses, if not accessible, will go out of their way to help customers if they know about special needs in advance.

"Most places are willing to do that," she said. "But you don't take anything for granted. Never assume something is accessible. You really have to call ahead to avoid being stuck and inconveniencing the people you're with."


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