by Steve Johnston
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
It doesn't take much to make me quit shopping at one store and take my business to another.
We're not talking about huge amounts of shopping money here but with three hungry teenagers (and their friends), the Johnston family does spend a good chunk of the weekly paycheck on groceries.
So what changed my shopping routine from going to one grocery store to another more out of my way? Simple. Wheelchair access.
Sure, my old grocery store in Bellevue's Factoria Square Shopping Center had wheelchair access. After all, it's required by law, and it makes good business sense to do it. But what's not required is good common sense on where to put the curb cut that gets you from the disabled parking spots to the entrance of the grocery store.
In this case, it was just too far from Point A (disabled parking spot) to Point B (entrance). Some folks may think I'm being too picky on this, but imagine parking your car, unloading a wheelchair or walker, getting up on the sidewalk and then going a half-block to an entrance.
Now imagine doing this in a cold Northwest rainstorm at 6:30 p.m.
A 22-year-old with a spinal injury might be able to wheel up that curb cut without much problem, but a 53-year-old with multiple sclerosis might not be strong enough to push over that first steep incline.
Before I had to use a wheelchair to get around, I didn't notice things like parking spots, curb cuts and doors that open automatically. That changed once I started using the wheelchair all the time. Not only am I aware of what's accessible, but my family and friends are becoming aware of it, telling me if the restaurant where we are going is easy to get in or if there are steps leading to it.
There are businesses -- from movie theaters to drugstores to restaurants - that take on the task of making their establishment accessible, businesses like Torero's Mexican Family Restaurant. Every Friday, up to a dozen people in wheelchairs gather there for lunch.
The reason these folks go there is because of Daniel Rodriquez, one of the six Rodriquez brothers who each own a restaurant in King County. All of the restaurants are accessible but Daniel Rodriquez has taken accessibility a step further.
When he opened his restaurant at Crossroads Shopping Center in 1986, Rodriquez noticed two guys in wheelchairs struggling to find a table for lunch in the common area in front of Torero's. He asked them if they wanted to eat inside his restaurant, and his staff would get their food for them.
"They can get anything they want (from the various restaurants in the food court)," Rodriquez said. "We just make room for them. More and more of them kept coming."
Now up to a dozen people sit at the four tables that Rodriquez reserves, and waiters such as Jimmy Garcia bring whatever they want. If they need help cutting their food, the waiters do that, too.
When it comes time to pay, Joan Gusa of Bellevue tells the waiter where her wallet is located on her wheelchair, and he takes out what is needed.
Some people going to Crossroads on Fridays live in nursing or group homes, and the visit gives them a chance to meet with their families outside of that environment.
Rodriquez said there is no one in his family who is disabled, but he thought helping out was a good idea, although he said some customers complain that the wheelchairs get in their way.
"I guess I am just a nice guy," Rodriquez said with a laugh.
You will see more people in wheelchairs at Crossroads than other shopping centers partly because it is all wheelchair accessible. People in wheelchairs and with other disabilities tend to go to places they hear about from other people in similar situations. Everything is on one level and the store aisles are wide enough so you don't get stuck trying to work your way around clothing racks or other merchandise.
Of stores in this area, I've been told that the aisles are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair but the cashier counter is too narrow to get through. You can pick up an item; you just can't get to the cashier to pay for it, wheelchair users told me. There have been stores in which I had to put my purchase on the counter and then wheel around to the other side (sometimes not that easy) and pay for the item.
It only takes once or twice with this experience to cross that store off my shopping list.
Bartell Drug Stores was named by some readers as one of the easier stores to get around in a wheelchair. One reader said she liked that the shelves don't tower over a person sitting low.
"I can reach just about everything while I am still sitting in my wheelchair," she said.
Downtown Seattle isn't very wheelchair or disabled friendly but two businesses were named for going out of their way to accommodate people with disabilities.
When Paul Allen, our local billionaire, bought the old Cinerama theater, he said he wanted it accessible for everyone and that included people in wheelchairs as well as sight-impaired or deaf patrons.
If you see a movie at the usual theater and you are in a wheelchair, your place is at the rear and you may even have to sit sideways because the area isn't wide enough to turn the chair around. As for those who are deaf or have poor eyesight, you are usually out of luck.
But the Cinerama was remodeled so a person in a wheelchair doesn't have to squeeze into the back row. Wheelchair seating is at the best location, right in the middle of the theater with comfortable companion chairs. There is an elevator that brings you up from the main floor.
The refreshment counters are low enough so you don't have to crane your neck placing an order, and all the bathrooms are wide enough to get wheelchairs in and out of the stalls.
The hearing impaired can get amplification headsets or Rear Window Captioning - a person can read the movie captions on a screen that fits into the seat's cup holder. Some movies come with narrative devices that detail the action on the screen.
You also can get into the theater's lobby through a special wheelchair entrance around the corner from the ticket booth. But you have to know about the entrance before buying a ticket because you cannot get a wheelchair into the theater from the main ticket booth.
Readers also have told me about another downtown Seattle business, Delcambre's Ragin' Cajun, on the edge of Pike Place Market. The owner, Danny Delcambre, has been deaf since birth and is legally blind. The restaurant has become a gathering place for blind and deaf people. Many of the employees are also either deaf or blind.
Tim Johnson of Bellevue lost a leg to cancer and has taken up a crusade to make businesses more accessible. But there are some businesses, he says, that stand out for ease in getting around.
"Matthew's Lakemont Thriftway in Bellevue has nice low displays showcasing many goodies of ready-to-eat foods," Johnson said. "Plus there are friendly, helpful worker bees that get you the right amount.
"The fruit and vegetable section is well laid out and things are stacked against you," he said. "There are no fruit avalanches."
Johnson adds that the bigger grocery stores are accessible, too, "but smaller is better for us who are horizontally challenged."
People with disabilities depend on the people who take care of their equipment, from vans to wheelchairs to artificial limbs, and they wrote in about the service.
Bill Brayer, who runs the multiple sclerosis support group for Snohomish County, said he has had a good relationship with Access Mobility Systems in Lynnwood. Not only does the company supply everything from wheelchairs to vans, but Brayer said they donate equipment for special events for disabled people.
Merrill Ringold of Multiple Sclerosis Association of King County said he has been impressed with Contemporary Medical Equipment in north Seattle. "A wonderful staff and a great pride in assisting those with disabilities," Ringold said.
It's difficult to get around when you become disabled, but two readers said they had a good time using Amtrak between Seattle and Vancouver. The train runs daily between the two cities, and several cars are accessible to wheelchairs. There's also a 15 percent discount for both the person with disabilities and any traveling companion 16 years and older. Just tell the person taking the ticket order that someone is disabled.
The county bus system, Metro, has a map of downtown Seattle that shows how to get from the waterfront to Sixth Avenue by public elevators and walkways in a wheelchair.
When we took this tour, we found that we needed someone to help push
our wheelchair. There are some steep curb cuts in downtown Seattle.
Next month: Disabilities and taxes. What can you deduct from your taxes?
Where to go to get information. Send your suggestions to the address below.
You can reach Steve Johnston at 206-515-5634, fax him at 425-453-0449,
to him at The Seattle Times Eastside Bureau, 10777 Main St., Bellevue, WA
98004, or e-mail him at email@example.com.