06/29/2001 - Friday
by Dionne Searcey
When Nassau County swimming pools open for the summer today, most will be equipped with new waterproof wheelchairs and ramps-fruits of one disabled man's campaign to ease pool access for handicapped people and seniors.
Donald Barbieri, a 41-year-old New Hyde Park man with multiple sclerosis, used his political connections and his advocacy skills to prod the bureaucracy in a county that is knee-deep in a fiscal crisis and trying to ward off a state takeover of its finances.
"Sometimes you try to do something and it works, you know what I mean?" Barbieri said.
During the past few months, park officials outfitted each of the county's eight swimming pools with white wheelchairs made of plastic piping. The chairs can be rolled down similar plastic ramps that gently slope into the shallow end of pools.
Barbieri, a trustee in New Hyde Park, has multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system.
Barbieri knows firsthand that summer is difficult, particularly for people with MS. Their nerves function better in lower temperatures, and the cooling, buoyant water of the pools allows them to do things they can't do on the ground.
"On a hot day in the summer I have trouble walking around the block, but I could swim 20 laps in the pool," said Barbieri, who uses a wheelchair.
While the entrances to county pools are wheelchair-friendly, access to the water can be hard to navigate, he said.
"There's not a way to get in and out of the water short of climbing up out of those little ladders that hang poolside," Barbieri said.
Barbieri, who serves on a government relations committee of the Long Island chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, set out on his mission last summer. He put together a packet of information about water therapy, including manufacturers of aquatic wheelchairs, and took it to county Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), who happened to be a boyhood friend.
Nicolello, who played baseball with Barbieri when they were 12, was immediately receptive.
"It was easy for me to visualize the difficulty someone with this disability would encounter in these pool facilities," Nicolello said. "I told [Barbieri] I'd make some calls and find out what we could do." Nicolello worked with park officials, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, his fellow lawmakers and Don Dreyer, director of the Nassau County Office for the Physically Challenged, to get approval for the chairs and ramps.
County officials tapped $35,000 in bond money set aside in an Americans with Disabilities Act capital projects fund, said Dreyer, who helps coordinate the county's ADA compliance.
"While much remains to be done in terms of full inclusion for people with disabilities in the county, here we have made some progress," Dreyer said.
The equipment is already popular with senior citizens at Eisenhower Park's Swimming and Diving Center, where a ramp and wheelchair were installed several weeks ago at the year-round facility, said Ron Beale, director of operations for the parks department.
Keith Newerla, 18, of Seaford, who uses a wheelchair, was at the indoor pool Wednesday checking out the new equipment. Newerla, who has cerebral palsy, wheeled down the ramp and splashed into the water.
"It doesn't get any easier than this," he said.