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THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

8 Blocks of Hurdles for Wheelchair

November 13, 2000|JERRY HICKS

It's eight blocks from Jason Strong's home to his local convenience store. Eight treacherous blocks, if you're in a wheelchair.

In preparation for a story on barriers to wheelchair safety (running on this page), I took that eight-block stretch with Strong, a Cal State Fullerton junior, who is quadriplegic. I had interviewed numerous wheelchair users about problems they face trying to get around. Many of the obstacles, they say, come from lack of awareness from some of the rest of us. But I wanted to see what they were talking about for myself.

It was quite an education, one I hadn't expected.

The first block was fine.

The second block, the sidewalk was completely barricaded by a pickup parked in someone's driveway. Which, of course, is against the law. These are public sidewalks. We don't own them just because they're in front of our homes.

The irony is, the owner came out to see what was going on when Strong tried to maneuver around the truck. He came out to look--but he didn't offer to move his large vehicle.

Strong made it, but he had to cut into the grass to do it. I stuck my hand out for fear he would tip over. Strong, who uses a motorized chair, just smiled. "Don't worry; I'm a very good driver," he said.

But even good drivers face risks. And Strong acknowledged that it's dangerous any time you have to cut over the edge of a sidewalk.

The third block, a maintenance worker had stretched a heavy garden hose down the length of the sidewalk in front of a home. If it had been stretched straight across, it would have been just one bump. But Strong had to cross the hose four times, each crossing a careful negotiation.

The fourth block, a homeowner had a set of lawn sprinklers going. For the most part, they were turned properly, toward the owner's grass. Better than many, Strong said. Even so, anyone walking by would get wet below the waist. In a wheelchair, it's in your face.

"Oh well, it's a good day for a bath," Strong said.

The fifth block, there were no curb cuts. Strong had to head his wheelchair down a driveway ramp on a side street. Problem is, to get to the driveway ramp on the other side, he had to cross the middle of the street. Someone barreling around the corner in a vehicle would have had to hit the brakes hard. In that same block, a section of lawn was cut out, with the grass missing, between the sidewalk and the street. That turned the sidewalk into a ledge with a sharp drop-off. Frankly, I hadn't even noticed it. But Strong pointed out, "This is really one of the most dangerous things we face, because if your wheel catches that edge, you're a goner."

The sixth block may have been the most frustrating of all. A homeowner had allowed bushes to grow over the top of a yard fence, hanging so low over the sidewalk that Strong had no choice but to simply get smacked in the face by them for some 50 feet.

Most in wheelchairs, I suppose, could swat them away with one hand and keep guiding their chair with the other. But Strong can't swat away anything.

There was no eighth block for us. The seventh block ended our journey. Utility poles in the middle of a narrow sidewalk were simply impossible for Strong to negotiate. For the city to correct that problem, it would require eliminating on-street parking for that stretch. That wouldn't be popular with the neighbors.

Strong offered no complaints anywhere along our route; to him, it's this way everywhere he goes.

*

Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 966-7789 or e-mail tojerry.hicks@latimes.com

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