Thursday, December 9, 2010

Social justice group to study accessibility in Maine town

From Village Soup:

BELFAST, Maine — The number of soldiers, men and women, who have been injured in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but who have survived thanks to the improvements in modern medicine is higher proportionally than in any other American war in history.

But here is one of the many downsides to that story: A soldier returns to his or her town. It could be Belfast. The soldier is now forced to get around in one of those 175-pound wheelchairs because of severe injuries to his or her legs as the result of a roadside bomb. Still, the soldier decides to celebrate being home by taking a friend to a new restaurant they have heard about.

The soldier gets there but finds to his or her disappointment that entrance is impossible. The step up to get into the restaurant is six inches high, and there is no way, even if you have help, that you are going to lift a 175-pound wheelchair with a person in it over that.

The Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast is aware of this problem and has made ambulatory disabled accessibility in Belfast one of its projects.

The project has been put in the hands of UU and Social Justice member Neva Allen, who herself uses a power chair as the result of the multiple sclerosis she has suffered from for the past 12 years.

“We are doing this as a reflection of the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Church,” Neva said. “Which is: ‘We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.’”

Neva’s husband, Stephen, also a member of the Social Justice Committee, made a detailed study of this subject as it exists in Belfast. He found that about 50 percent of the businesses and public buildings, such as City Hall, are accessible to anyone in a wheelchair.

Of the 50 percent that are not, he and Neva found that 20 percent of them can be excused, since building either a permanent or a portable ramp would be impossible because of the structure of the building. An example of this would be the Parent Gallery, at the corner of High and Main streets. There are six granite steps leading up to the gallery.

“But the other 30 percent of businesses could — and should — be made accessible to people in wheelchairs,” Neva said. "The Americans With Disabilities Act was passed 20 years ago to make it possible for handicapped people to be able to live their lives like everyone else. What we are asking each business to do is have a portable threshold ramp available. This way, when someone in a wheelchair, scooter, walker, etc. wants to come into their store, all they have to do is bring out the ramp. Some people are under the misconception that the ramp has to be really long, but this isn't true. While the ADA requires permanent ramps to be 12 inches long for every inch of rise, portable threshold ramps can be much shorter. They can easily be built or purchased. This is a win-win solution. The ambulatory disabled person now has access to the business, and the business now has customers that they wouldn't have had otherwise."

She added, "With so many of our soldiers coming home disabled, there really is no reason not to do this. When people talk about supporting our troops, I think that if businesses did this, their action would speak louder than the words."

One Belfast business that has already been influenced by the action of the Social Justice Committee, she said, is the Old Professor’s Bookshop, which installed a small but adequate ramp to make the store wheelchair-accessible.

“I realized something needed to be done when three different people in wheelchairs asked to come into the shop,” said George Siscoe, owner of the Old Professor’s Bookshop. “We were able to get them in, but it was not easy. So I contacted a carpenter friend, Mark White, and he was able to construct an inexpensive ramp for me.”