Letter: Wheelchair ‘street-riding’ to church

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letters_flatTo the editor,

What’s it like “street-riding” a motorized wheelcahir or “powerchair”?  Short answer in five words: terrifying, scary, nerve-wracking, tense, daunting.  I would have added nail-biting, but a stroke left me with use of only one leg and one hand.  The latter I need to operate my powerchair, not biting fingernails.

Why would I be risking my life riding the streets of downtown Seymour — when I’m aware that recently in Bridgeport a wheelchair street-rider was killed in a collision with an SUV?  The alternative is not going out at all, just wasting life away cooped up at home.  Or, for tens of thousands of dollars, the state could send aides every day to take me out and push me to places downtown.

I am “aging in place,” living independently in Seymour and among the 5,200 persons (elderly and young with or without disabilities) Gov. Malloy has charged the Connecticut Department of Social Services with the job of transitioning from nursing homes to independent living by 2016. It can save the state $700 million a year.

In this budget-conserving initiative there’s a slight flaw: few of Connecticut’s communities in the 169 towns, cities, and villages are “livable communities.”  We can get around by ourselves in our scooters, walkers, and wheelchairs; but, 23 long years after ADA’s enactment, broken or absent curbcuts and sidewalks prevent us from doing that.

Recently, I had decided to ride my powerchair to church just about five-tenths a mile away from my apartment (on a full charge my powerchair can go 15 miles).  After bumping my way out of my apartment building’s main entrance (no automatic door for us handicapped tenants living here), I became stuck spinning my wheels in snow just two feet from the door. A neighbor hearing my calls for help came with her windshield ice scraper to free me.

Unlike tenants without disabilities — who can take the shortcut to the sidewalk through the mound of outdoor mailboxes — I cannot do so because a curb blocks my access.  The path to the mailboxes and sidewalk is circuitous for me. I’m forced first to ride through the busy potholed parking lot (where at Christmas a tenant nearly hit me head-on, stopping just inches from my legs), then out into DeForest Street and then up a cracked driveway apron to the sidewalk.

All of the above was an exercise in futility.  I cannot ride sidewalks to church because they are severely broken and plantings that encroach so low block my passage and even that of pedestrians.

So, praying nervously while looking over my shoulder for cars behind me, I rode in the street.  Rounding the corner at the end of the block, I was forced again to “wheelchair street-ride,” but now on Main Street.  To ride over the Broad Street Bridge, I needed to cross Broad and was relieved to see a pedestrian-activated crossing light.  A push on the button soon brought cars from three directions to a stop.  Trusting them, I rode up a nice curbcut — only to find patches of glare ice on the bridge sidewalk.

Riding on ice was the most worrisome part of my “church trip” to Seymour Congregational, for the sidewalk is pitched to the street and naturally uphill to the crest.  I was worried that my machine would slide toward the street and then tip over the curb into oncoming traffic.  A slow, steady speed brought me safely to the crest where more ice awaited.

After turning left at Pine Street, I discovered another dilemma: the sidewalk ended, dropping off onto a dirt sidewalk.  And there was no curbcut to cross Pine to the church driveway.  Fortunately, a fellow parishioner grabbed the back of my powerchair to prevent it from tipping forward while I drove it off the curb.

All of the above was repeated when the service was over, except that snow blocked me from pushing the crossing light button.  (Glad I watched chimps and crows; seeing a dead branch, I used it to reach the button.)  But my not so joyous ride wasn’t over.  A weeks-old mound of snow blocked the sidewalk at Kisson’s Crossing, forcing me onto busy Main Street.

Joseph Luciano

Seymour