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You can change things more easily than you think: accessibility in your community.

YOU Can Change Things More Easily Than You Think

So you've finally adapted your house to your life--ramps, special handles, easy-to-reach shelves, a spacious bathroom with all the right rails. But what happens when you go out into your community to shop, to eat at a restaurant, or even to visit a friend?

If you feel that a trip to the local shopping center is like re-entering the Stone Age, you're not alone: street corners without cut-down curbs for wheelchairs and scooters, steps to climb in shopping centers and buildings, stores with hard-to-reach shelves and public phones, drinking fountains inaccessible to wheelchairs and the lack of even a few chairs that perhaps the most able-bodied shopper would find necessary after a day of tramping the malls.

Obstacles such as these might be frustrating enough to send a person home to stay, but disabled individuals are increasingly realizing that many of the changes that can make life easier are not daunting, but doable, and that they are often left undone through ignorance rather than indifference or economics.

Often, all that is needed is just to get the ball rolling.

Yvonne Loteczka, who has MS, says her hometown of Wethersfield, Connecticut is generally "very accessible, with lots of cut-down curbs, but I found that a step at one shopping center barred me from the local pizza restaurant and other establishments."

She talked to one of the owners of the shopping center in which the pizza parlor is located, Robert Udolf of Udolf Properties, and explained that a simple ramp would allow the disabled to patronize his center's establishment.

"He was quite willing to look into the matter," she says, "and he even put me in touch with the contractor he selected. It took a year, but today there's a ramp we can use."

"Most of our properties are completely accessible," Udolf says. "Code requires that new buildings be built that way, but some older structures need renovations. This was a case where for only a few thousand dollars ($2,500) we could make it possible for disabled people to patronize several of our businesses."

He explains that although his company owns all the buildings in its shopping centers, it does not link an establishment's rent to its sales. "Therefore we can't see any direct return on an improvement such as a ramp for the disabled. Goodwill in the community is really the bottom line here."

"There may not be any immediate, measurable monetary reward," Ms. Loteczka points out, "but the publicity that can come out of this kind of accommodation to the disabled can have a very real value. Often that kind of positive advertising is worth much more in the long run than cash up front."

Disabled groups around the country have worked with supermarkets.

Susan Dellow, services director of the Greater Connecticut Chapter, reports that such an effort in the Hartford area was eminently successful, resulting in wider shopping aisles, some checkout aisles wide enough for wheelchairs or scooters, and uniform arrangement of merchandise to reduce hunting for items or reaching for frequently purchased foods such as milk, eggs and bread.

Some stores even purchased a few scooters for in-store use, and shopping carts low enough to be pushed by someone in a wheelchair. Other stores provided delivery service.

Stanley Chester in East Windsor, Connecticut runs a grocery business with his wife, and recently purchased three electric vehicles outfitted with shopping baskets.

"They've worked out very well," he says. "There's not a real crush to use them, but you see them running around the store a good bit. We have customers who have shopped here for years, and at some point, they find they can't get around the way they used to, because of age or some disability."

Has it been cost-effective for the business? "We concentrate on personal service--that's what's important in our business," he says. "We didn't buy the vehicles with any monetary considerations in mind, but it hasn't hurt us."

Pat August, a Greater Connecticut Chapter staff member who has MS and has served on her community's Commission for the Aged and Handicapped, believes that making businesses accessible to the disabled does have an economic dimension, even if many property owners and businesses make renovations more as goodwill gestures.

"The word is getting out," she says, "that the disabled community is a viable commodity."

For instance, in Cincinnati, Ohio Beverly Nelsen, a 51-year-old grandmother with MS and a friend of hers, also disabled, wanted to embark on a major shopping expedition at the Forest Fair Mall.

"We had motorized carts, but needed help in setting them up in the mall. We called Parisian, a store where we often shop. Someone met us and helped us get set up. We shopped all day, and between the two of us, spent between $800 and $900." This is not an uncommon situation, and the business community is becoming aware of the potential.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin Myrna Cohen, who has worked for years in shopping center management, was stricken with a disabling neurological condition that left her in a wheelchair. She devised a program called "Shopping for the Physically Challenged" that educates retailers and counsels them in making accommodations for the disabled. Besides a short group lecture, the program includes a tour around the mall stores by wheelchair, so salespeople and shop owners can experience firsthand the obstacles and inconveniences faced by the disabled.

One of the best results of the program which recently won second place in a national competition was the realization by shop owners that many accommodations need not involve major expenditures, that very often a simple "trick" makes a world of difference.

For example, where counters are too high, clipboards can be offered to shoppers in wheelchairs to sign checks or fill out order forms. Special low-traffic hours may be advertised as advantageous for patrons with handicaps. A simple thing like a delivery service (even at a slight fee) can make that store sought after.

Merchandise can be brought to a disabled individual to reduce in-store travel, and wider aisles are not only welcomed by wheelchair shoppers, but also by customers with large packages and children in strollers.

In Sherman Oaks, California Bullock's department store started a "Bullock's by appointment" program for ordering merchandise from one's home. It is a service for all charge customers at no extra cost.

"A number of gas stations are now giving people with handicapped license plates full service for self-service prices," says Susan Dellow.

As far back as 1983, SOHIO--Standard Oil of Ohio--began a policy of suggesting that its outlets pump gas for disabled customers and give them self-service discounts. Today, other oil companies with similar recommendations include Amoco, Shell, Exxon and Mobil. Mobil also is reported to be installing new pumps in some locations that enable disabled motorists to pump their own gas.

Susan Dellow comments that accessibility problems frequently involve getting from one place to another. "A group called Citizens for Accessible Transportation has been lobbying for lifts on buses, and special buses for the disabled as an alternative."

How do you go about remedying some of these problems in your community?

Charles Yessian, a social worker with MS who has been active in Connecticut, leads a Society support group that deals with accessibility issues, among others.

Yvonne Loteczka acts as an individual. "We can and should do things for ourselves," she says.

"I don't believe in a lot of demonstrations. I don't think you need to go out and embarrass people. You don't have to. I've found that it usually works just to show property owners or employers that it's a reasonable requests to accommodate the disabled. After all, we're not asking people to tear down walls or rip out staircases."

But Ms. Loteczka is anything but bashful. She sticks with a project until something is done.

"The important thing to do when making a suggestion for some change is not to criticize and make vague demands. You must do your homework and--most important--be ready with a plan for the change you want. People may be willing, but they don't know what's right. Too often, for example, property owners will put in a ramp, and it will be in the wrong place and will be too steep a grade. Not on purpose. The owner did his best. But if we are ready with suggestions and standards to pass on for the job, everyone will be happier in the end.

"I didn't know anything about ramps until I worked on getting one for that pizza place. But I learned. I know now that you have to have one foot of length for every inch of elevation, or people in wheelchairs won't be able to wheel themselves up the ramp. I know, because I tried to go up a ramp that was too steep and toppled over backwards."

By following up on the shopping center ramp, she found that there were plans to put the ramp is a spot where cars often parked close to the building. Merely shifting the location of the ramp solved that potential problem.

"Usually I just undertake projects as a disabled individual," Ms. Loteczka says, "but occassionally if I'm ignored, I let the people involved know that I'm a member of the Connecticut Public Transportation Commission."

Pat August stresses the importance of becoming politically active in one's own community, but, echoing Yvonne, emphasizes that confrontations are usually not necessary.

"When you bring problems to the attention of elected officials," she says, "often you find them surprisingly receptive; they may just have never realized that the problem existed. Whenever you go, keep a sharp eye out, and see what needs to be done. Just making yourself and your ideas known can go a long way to getting things done."

Apparently a number of businesses do see the value in accommodations for the disabled. Ms. Loteczka alerted one supermarket to the fact that handicapped parking spaces were on the far side of a busy lane of traffic.

The store marked closer spaces, and also installed two ramps appropriate for wheelchairs.

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses will become even more alerted to the value to them in promoting accessibility. Individuals can be extremely helpful in making the act a reality in their communities.

"A lot is possible, but it all takes time," Yvonne explains. Time and understanding that organizations such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society cannot provide us with all the help and equipment we'll ever need. So people have to help themselves and it's important that they realize that they can make a difference--and that communities are willing to listen if we speak up."
COPYRIGHT 1990 National Multiple Sclerosis Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related information on costs
Author:Frames, Robin
Publication:Inside MS
Date:Sep 22, 1990
Previous Article:"The helpful little things." (overcoming frustration)
Next Article:Small grants, big goals: innovative research program focuses on MS care and quality of life.

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