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Mississippi Wheelchair Challenge Offers Perspective

August 25, 2013
Source: The Sun Herald and The Clarion-Ledger, MS

When a group of people took to downtown Jackson in wheelchairs and rolled a four-block course in sweltering temperatures, their disabilities didn't get in the way.

But the fact that they aren't disabled did.

The entourage of Mississippi Department of Transportation and city of Jackson employees, Neel-Schaffer engineering staffers and some of the firm's clients experienced firsthand how important [accessibility for individuals with disabilities] is in public places, and how hard it can be for a [person with a disability] to get around, much less someone who has no practice navigating in a wheelchair.

"I told the people out in that heat, 'Don't complain. You can voluntarily get out of that wheelchair in 15 minutes. Other people who are permanently disabled can't,' " said Jonathan Kiser, professional traffic engineer and transportation planner with Neel-Schaffer.

"They are at the mercy of engineers and inspectors who design public places. People who [don't have a physical disability] can have a hard time understanding why you must have this tolerance on design standards."

The exercise, a project of Neel-Schaffer, combined with classroom training is meant to help those connected with designing and constructing public places understand why there are rules on [accessibility for individuals with disabilities]. Those taking part experienced both good and dreadful examples in rolling their chairs on sidewalks and streets.

"Engineers that design and inspectors that oversee construction have a perspective from about six feet of height and two good feet and good legs." Kiser said.

As they look at construction from six feet up, Kiser said, those who aren't using wheelchairs might think the slope of sidewalks as they approach streets is just fine. "But, when you're in a wheelchair, there's a tremendous difference," he said.

It wasn't a walk in the park for Neel-Schaffer engineer Mark Sorrell, one of those using a wheelchair in the exercise.

"I am in average shape, and I was able to hold my own for maybe half a block to a block," said Sorrell, like Kiser a traffic operations engineer. "After that, the heat started getting to me, and the effort of paying attention to the sidewalk and navigating around trash cans and other obstacles began taking its toll.

"You don't really appreciate the fact that there are differences between one sidewalk panel and the next, or a crack that's developed, or getting across a grate. It's much different in a wheelchair than taking a lunchtime walk."

Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements call for certain construction standards to ensure access for those who [have disabilities].

Constructing sidewalks with a 2 percent cross slope toward the street meets standards, Kiser said. "Above 2 percent means the sidewalk is tilted so much that gravity makes the wheelchair user roll toward the street. They have to use more pressure on one of their wheels, and if they aren't paying attention, they will roll into the street," Kiser said.

The entourage of seven people experimenting in wheelchairs and about 13 others tried to navigate a downtown loop from Pearl to Lamar streets, Lamar to Capitol Street, then to Congress Street back to Pearl.

Three staffers from the nonprofit Living Independence for Everyone of Mississippi, or LIFE, took part in the exercise in an advisory role. LIFE often partners with Neel Schaffer to give advice on [accessibility issues].

"In one place, there was a trash receptacle on the corner, and when you came around it, there was a grated area. Some of the wider chairs couldn't get around it without tipping into the grate, and those people realized they were being pulled into the line of traffic," said Sonia Fogal, LIFE's Pro-Heal program coordinator and a wheelchair user.

"One of the engineers at one point couldn't maneuver around the obstacles. He got up out of the chair and pushed his way through it. Our executive director, Christy Dunaway, told him that it must be nice to have the ability to get up and reposition his chair," Fogal said. "I told him, 'You're cheating. Get back in that chair!' "

Kiser said municipalities most often are tasked with oversight and implementation of construction that meets ADA requirements. "They're the ones who get the complaints and must provide accessibility," he said. And when it comes to building at a 2 percent slope versus 3 or 4 percent, he said, the construction cost isn't higher.

"A lot of times, contractors aren't paying close attention to it because they don't know the requirements, or they don't care," Kiser said. "The slope should be no more than 2 percent."

Fogal said LIFE fights the battle constantly. But, she said. "a lot of people do care and have the passion, as this firm does."

The training doesn't end in Jackson. Kiser said the firm's Hattiesburg and Biloxi offices will conduct the same exercises with key players in those areas. It's important to meet standards that update and change over time, especially when court cases can arise, Kiser said. "We want to help people comply. Our goal is to do the right thing and provide engineering and design and construction services that meet current standards.

"It's becoming a bigger issue. There are more people with disabilities, and we have an aging population."

Note: Living Independence for Everyone of Mississippi (LIFE) is the State Affiliate for the Southeast ADA Center.

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