More MS news articles for Mar 2002

A Different Point of View

Mar 22, 2002
Lois Maharg
Intelligencer Journal Lancaster, PA
Those who must use wheelchairs to travel face challenges every day. Local residents share their stories on how they overcome obstacles and their perspectives on how the city, county and businesses address their needs.

Confinement to a wheelchair makes it easy to stay home. Yet some local wheelchair users are determined to be out and about.

"This is my opening to the world," said Willow Street resident Susan Wolfgang, 47, referring to her frequent bus trips in and around Lancaster city to do errands, go to appointments and meet friends.

It isn't always easy, said Wolfgang, a retired teacher whose multiple sclerosis has made it necessary to use a wheelchair since 1995. But like other wheelchair users, she's investigated enough to know which places are wheelchair accessible and which are not. And when she finds herself challenged, she manages to get by, on her own and with a little help.

"You learn to extend yourself," she said. "You learn to do what you've got to do."

Facilities like Lancaster General Health Campus are mostly hassle- free, she said. There are no steps blocking the entrance. There are automatic doors. The corridors are wide and the bathrooms handicap- accessible, and the doors to medical offices have lever-style handles which, unlike regular doorknobs, Wolfgang can grip and open herself. In her electric wheelchair, she can move smoothly over the granite-tiled floors.

But not all places are wheelchair-friendly, especially restrooms, Wolfgang said. Even bathrooms marked handicap-accessible do not always have bars next to the toilet or stalls large enough to fit a chair inside and allow people to transfer from their chairs to the toilet.

Heavy doors are also a problem.

Once Wolfgang entered a bathroom and later, when she went to leave, found herself trapped. The door was heavy and next to another wall. She couldn't pull the door forward and had to call out for assistance.

"I'm not above yelling for help," she said.

To avoid such hassles, she frequents stores that can accommodate her. She does most of her shopping at Park City Mall, where stores like Boscov's have roomy bathrooms and handicap-accessible dressing rooms -- a little larger, and with hooks lower than regular dressing rooms.

However, some aisles in the store are too narrow for her 26-inch- wide wheelchair. Particularly when a new inventory comes in, she said, it's impossible to squeeze in to browse through the racks of clothes.

Wolfgang said she avoids the downtown area because it's less accessible than the mall.

But Tina Matt, 28, who lives on North Prince Street, traverses the downtown area daily, going to stores, the library, restaurants, appointments and meetings in her electric wheelchair.

Some buildings are not accessible, said Matt, a volunteer advocate for Lancaster Disabled for Change and Justice whose cerebral palsy keeps her from walking without assistance. Some businesses aren't very accommodating, Matt said. There are restaurants where servers respond grudgingly when asked to rearrange tables. There are stores where the clerks are too busy to help her get something off a shelf.

Yet other shop owners and service providers welcome people in wheelchairs, Matt said. The proprietor of Stan's Record Bar will, on short notice, bring out a temporary ramp. Her chiropractor at Jemison Family Chiropractic will come outside to help her up and down the steps.

The biggest challenge for Matt is in getting from place to place.

"I really depend on the sidewalks to get me where I want to go," Matt said, adding that she gives the city a C minus on accessibility.

Sidewalks such as those on East King are full of slopes, cracks and tree stumps that make them treacherous for wheelchair users, Matt said. In some places there aren't any curb cuts, making it difficult for people in wheelchairs to cross the street.

A year ago a police officer stopped Matt as she was riding down West Walnut Street in her wheelchair. He insisted that she move onto the sidewalk even after she told him there was no curb cut where she would have to cross the street later on, she said.

On the sidewalk again, she ran into some acquaintances who, when she reached the corner, helped her down into the crosswalk. But her wheelchair came down hard on the pavement, hurting Matt's neck and damaging her chair.

"I've bent five pairs of forks trying to get around town," Matt said.

Matt has built her life downtown because riding the bus is often uncomfortable, she said. And the door-to-door paratransit service, Red Rose Access, is time-consuming.

Wolfgang lives outside the city, however, and relies on Access buses to get around. Riding the bus has taught her patience, she said.

Not only must she call to schedule her rides 24 hours in advance. If she schedules a ride at 1:30 p.m., the bus may come anywhere between 1:15 and 1:45 p.m. Adding more time to her trips to allow for contingencies, Wolfgang spends a lot of time waiting.

Some bus rides are comfortable, she said. Most drivers treat her with respect.

But rides can also be painful. If Wolfgang cannot ride in the forward position, there's nothing for her to hold onto to steady herself, and some bumpy rides on older buses have left her angered to the point of tears. A few drivers have been short-tempered and rude, she said.

Brian Detwiler, case manager at United Disabilities Services, has a different impression of the city and county bus service.

A quadriplegic since 1990, Detwiler, 29, rode fixed route and paratransit buses for about a decade.

"I think the buses are very good and very accessible," Detwiler said. "And the drivers are courteous. They aren't rushing you."

But less than a year ago, Detwiler began to drive a van and has since encountered parking problems. His van is too high to fit inside most parking garages, and finding on-street handicap parking spaces "is almost impossible" in the city, he said.

Also, in parking lots as elsewhere, handicap spaces are the same size as regular spaces. If another car parks in the space to his left, where he exits his van, there isn't room for Detwiler to get in and out. There is also the problem of unauthorized parking in handicap spaces.

Wolgang, Matt and Detwiler said they sometimes need help, or may look like they need help. Except when the need for assistance is obvious, they appreciate other people asking if -- rather than assuming -- they need it; this allows them to accept or decline.

But they prefer getting around mostly on their own and doing things for themselves even if it means, Wolfgang said, occasionally looking awkward and klutzy. There's dignity in independence, she said, and she likes being out in the world.
(C) 2002 Intelligencer Journal Lancaster, PA