Sunday, March 22, 2009

Study shows access problems in Winston-Salem, N.C.

From the Winston-Salem Journal:

As someone who uses a wheelchair, Eva Houston (pictured) has found that Winston-Salem isn't as readily accessible to people with disabilities as she would like it to be.

Houston has taken a handicapped-accessible bus to a shopping center only to find that there was no straightforward way for her to get into the center after exiting the bus. And she has used a curb-cut ramp to roll her wheelchair up on a sidewalk, only to find no curb cut to roll off at the other end.

"It is impossible for me to get to places that are supposed to be handicapped-accessible," she said. "Many times I have run over the curb and fallen out of my chair."

Because she had polio as a child, Houston has had to use a wheelchair as an adult. As an assistant professor of rehabilitation counseling at Winston-Salem State University, she helps students learn about ways to assist people with disabilities.

For a project, 17 of her students studying for a master's degree rode bus routes around Winston-Salem and evaluated how accessible the stops are to people with such limitations as visual impairment or use of a wheelchair.

March 21, Houston and two of the students -- Sharon Andrews-Mbaye and Kentrell Pittman -- presented some of their findings at the monthly meeting of the Forsyth County Aging Services Planning Committee, which is associated with the county manager's office.

As Houston and others later pointed out, accessibility issues are pertinent to older people because age often brings physical limitations.

"As we become older, we are going to have a disability," she said.

In their study, the students found helpful bus drivers and accessible buses. But when it came to the stops, they found that although some were well-designed, others presented obstacles.

For instance, Andrews-Mbaye said, the stop at Country Club and Jonestown roads has a good shelter and other amenities, but a wheelchair user would encounter a sharp drop, overhanging branches and no sidewalk at a stop near a bridge farther along the route, where Old Vineyard Road becomes Healy Drive.

At a stop on Indiana Avenue, Pittman said, there is no curb cut, and the stoplight that would have made it easier to cross the road was hundreds of feet away.

The good news, Houston said, is that the city has been fixing some of the problems since she and the students passed along their findings.

Cindy Arrington, who introduced Houston and the students, is a co-chairwoman of the aging committee's transportation subcommittee -- Forsyth in Motion -- and the assistant director of The Adaptables, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities live as independently as possible.

Arrington said she has found city officials to be quite responsive.

"Once we make them aware of the barriers we identify, they do correct," she said.

Phillip Vereen, the transit project planner for the city of Winston Transportation Department, is a co-chairman of Forsyth in Motion. Although he was not at the meeting, he later said that some of the suggestions from Houston and her students reinforced the findings of studies done by the city. Some improvements, such as those on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, he said, were already being included in the planning for projects in the city's capital-projects plan.

"They are good ideas," Vereen said.

Kathy Long, the manager of the Acute Care for the Elderly Unit at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, knows what a hazard curbs can pose for older people.

"They have tripped over the curb, broken their hip, and their life changes forever," Long said at the meeting.

She said that the inability to get around can lead to depression in older people because being restricted to home can cut them off from the social interaction that is important to emotional well-being.

Houston, who lives in the Nissen Building apartments downtown, has found that in general, accessibility becomes more of an issue the farther one travels away from downtown.

Jim Whelan, the executive director of The Adaptables, said that in Winston-Salem, the problem is more than sidewalks that don't have proper curb cuts.

"It's the pure lack of sidewalks that is the trouble in this city," Whelan said.