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Sam Hall Kaplan

Viewing Downtown in Wheelchair

March 01, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN

As if there was nothing more heinous demanding attention on Skid Row, a policeman there recently issued a jaywalking ticket to Chris Morland.

But Morland was not jaywalking in mid-Main Street between 5th and 6th streets, as cited. What Morland was doing there was operating an electric wheelchair to which he has been confined for the last 12 years.

It was not that Morland, a talented photographer who works for the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, did not want to ford Main Street at the corner in the designated pedestrian crosswalk. He could not. There were no access ramps there to allow him to negotiate the high curbs.

The only way for him to cross the street without asking a passer-by to help him maneuver the wheelchair off the curb was to drive to the mid-block where the sidewalk dips into an alleyway on the same level with the street, and then to cross the street to the opposite alleyway and up to the sidewalk.

Morland said he does not like to ask anyone to help him off curbs at corners, especially in generally hostile Skid Row. "Once a man there offered to help me, and when he got my chair down in the street, he robbed my camera," the photographer explained.

Morland also said he does not like to get to the other side of streets by traveling along in the traffic lanes from crosswalk to crosswalk, as many persons in electric wheelchairs do. "I've been sideswiped and hurt doing that," he said. "No, I prefer sidewalks."

The problem is getting onto and off the sidewalks. According to Morland, other similarly handicapped persons and various associations of disabled persons, there is a serious lack of access ramps in downtown Los Angeles, as well as elsewhere across the city.

"But it is particularly bad downtown, where a lot of disabled persons work and an increasing number live," said Morland, who lives in an apartment on Spring Street.

This is the point Morland was going to make in traffic court recently in contesting the $10 jaywalking ticket. But when he appeared on a not guilty plea, the judge did not take any testimony.

Instead, he simply dismissed the ticket with the comment that Morland in a motorized wheelchair was operating a vehicle and obviously had been improperly charged.

Morland said later that it was apparent that the judge did not want to confront the problem; that because of the lack of access ramps, disabled persons who want to use and enjoy the city's sidewalks, often must break the law by riding in streets to seek out alternative curb cuts.

"The judge was acting just like the city does when disabled people try to tell them that the lack of access ramps, among many other things, is denying us our rights and freedom: They don't want to solve the problem, they just want to avoid it," Morland added.

Also at the courthouse to testify on behalf of Morland and the rights of the disabled were Lou and Yvonne Nau, both of whom are confined to wheelchairs, have been fierce local proponents of the rights of the disabled.

"California has some very good laws," said Yvonne Nau, who is past president of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on the Disabled. "The problem has been enforcement. There has been a lot of lip service about the needs and rights of the disabled, but everyone, from the governor and mayor on down, seem to want to get away with doing as little as possible for the least amount of money."

"Particularly bad have been builders and architects," added Lou Nau. He said that complying with the accessibility codes usually is an afterthought in the building and design process.

As a result, Yvonne Nau commented that access for the handicapped in many public places, such as a restaurant, is through the rear. "It is amazing that they just have not simply put up a sign that states, delivery, garbage and the handicapped to the rear."

"On the way to dinners, we've passed through and seen more restaurant kitchens than kitchen inspectors," added Lou Nau.

According to the Naus and Morland, among other problems handicapped persons must contend with are the attitudes of RTD bus drivers.

They charged that many drivers, even those of buses with wheelchair lift ramps, pass by handicapped persons waiting at stops. Yvonne Nau said drivers just do not want to be bothered and take the time to operate the lifts.

Private transportation, in general, also is a problem for the handicapped. Specially equipped automobiles are expensive, as is insurance, which for some handicapped persons is quite difficult to obtain.

And Yvonne Nau added that for those with cars, a constant annoyance is the failure of the city to enforce parking spaces for the disabled. She explained the Police Department had turned the responsibility for enforcement over to the city's Transportation Department, which, at best, responds to complaints only during weekday work hours. "No one seems to want to be bothered," she said.

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