Public servants sample life in a wheelchair

Local officials who spent a morning doing their normal routine in a wheelchair have a new outlook of how the city feels to those with disabilities.

From narrowly avoiding being hit at a busy Columbus intersection to finding out that the decorative downtown paver streetscape can be difficult to navigate in a wheelchair, the 25 officials came away with a new mindset from the Oct. 27 Day in a Wheelchair event.

Besides exhaustion, sore muscles and hand blisters, the most cited obstacle was the slant found on most downtown Columbus sidewalks that is almost undetectable to pedestrians.

“That slight slope is always trying to steer your wheelchair into the street,” said Zack Ellison, chairman of the Bartholomew County Plan Commission. “So you have to brake with one wheel and apply power to the other _ just to keep it going straight.”

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Another common observation was how the slightest break in a street or sidewalk can cause problems for people in a wheelchair.

“The bricks are a gorgeous part of our downtown streets,” Columbus Redevelopment director Heather Pope said. “But they are difficult to maneuver in a wheelchair.”

And there were potential dangers elsewhere, too.

As Director of Public Works Bryan Burton and city transit mechanic Greg Noel attempted to wheel across Second Street south of the Bartholomew County Courthouse as directed by the crosswalk signal, they could see an eastbound vehicle quickly approaching.

Speeding up in their wheelchairs as fast as possible, Burton and Noel barely got out of the way before the speeding car ran the red light at the Washington Street intersection.

“The driver wasn’t paying attention at all,” Burton said. “Luckily, Greg and I were — or we would have been hit.”

About six blocks away, city transit driver and former national champion van driver Pamela Wilcoxon was feeling a sense of pride after wheeling across Fifth and Lindsey streets.

But what she didn’t anticipate was the steep angle of Carl Miske Drive into Mill Race Park.

As the wheelchair gained momentum on the hill, an oncoming car approached and Wilcoxon, a city transit driver, injured her finger while trying unsuccessfully to slow down.

“I hurt my hand, hurt my back, and thought I was gonna die,” Wilcoxon told the other participants at the group session that followed the morning’s event.

Wilcoxon also told the group she had a less dangerous, but embarrassing experience of finding herself stuck in a conventional restroom with no way of getting out, she said. She called for help to have someone assist her in getting the wheelchair out of the restroom.

Weather was also a concern for some of the participants on the overcast fall day.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop was keeping an eye on whether it might rain. He carried papers in his lap as he left Columbus City Hall to attend a meeting at the Bartholomew County Governmental Office building about a block away.

When he arrived at the county office building, he had a difficult time getting the wheelchair into a small elevator as the handicap-accessible elevators were receiving maintenance work.

“You find yourself always trying to come up with a work-around plan. Because as much as we try, our environment is just not set up for wheelchairs,” Lienhoop said.

Other participants listed problems including a lack of traction on loose leaves, difficulty in going over doorway thresholds, maneuvering through alleys, getting through single doors and wheeling up ramps.

“Ramps look small to walkers, but they aren’t when you are in a wheelchair,” Ellison said. “You have to work pretty hard to get up them.”

Even the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee on the go becomes nearly impossible when you find yourself in a wheelchair, several participants said.

Deborah Seeley, a participant who uses a wheelchair in real life, says there have been times when she is in a supermarket and has been blocked by others who are talking or don’t realize she is there.

“But for the most part, people in Columbus are very helpful,” said Seeley, a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Board on Disability and Accessibility.

“Celebrate Columbus” web-show host and Josh Burnett said that while he was in his wheelchair, thoughts of his wife, Katie, who has Crohn’s disease, kept going through his mind.

“This took an emotional toll,” Burnett said. “I’m my wife’s primary caregiver. But I kept thinking that if I were in this wheelchair for good, I wouldn’t be able to take care of her.”

Then — as Bill Jensen, director of secondary education for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., expressed his heartfelt feelings — the luncheon group fell silent.

“I felt a sense of guilt, because I knew that in a couple of hours, I’ll be able to get up,” Jensen told the group.

With a deeper understanding of people who navigate such barriers on a daily basis, Jensen concluded: “I’m going to be listening to their voices a lot more.”

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The inaugural A Day in a Wheelchair consisted of 25 individuals, mostly elected or appointed civic leaders, who were recruited to spend three to four hours in a wheelchair the morning of Oct. 27.

Organizers estimate that 17 percent of all Bartholomew County residents (13,500) have some form of disability.

Goal of the event was create a new awareness for decision-makers involved with Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, and creating new accessible options for the physically or mentally challenged in the Columbus area.

The event was championed by Columbus city councilwoman Laurie Booher. Booher’s son Collin was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

Sponsors were Columbus Regional Hospital, the Columbus Human Rights Commission and Access-Ability.