It’s one thing to talk about accessibility issues and quite another to experience them. Now, Barbara Brenneman, a 30-year Farmington resident and 25-year member of the Town Plan and Zoning Commission, has done both.
Brenneman, who has a history of advocating for accessibility of town buildings from her post on the zoning commission, took a tour of Unionville and Farmington shopping centers Friday to find out firsthand the challenges disabled people encounter around town.
“It was an incredibly eye-opening experience,” Brenneman said at the end of her tour. “I wanted to get out of the chair all the time. I wanted to get up and pull the door but that’s not what the job was. My job was to see if I could do it and a lot of times I couldn’t.”
Human Relations Commission Director Ruth Grobe and three of its members who live at New Horizons in Unionville accompanied Brenneman on the tour, sharing their experiences and concerns along the way.
The group started at New Horizons, where Brenneman, in a manual wheelchair, was loaded into one of the New Horizons vans and taken down to the parking lot. From there, they headed into Friendly’s, immediately observing several obstacles: the only ramp onto the sidewalk to access the building is from the parking lot, the sidewalk is too narrow for a wheelchair to pass in some spots and the door is not automated.
“I can’t reach the door handle, let alone open it,” Brenneman said, struggling to pull on the heavy door and wheel backward.
Though she had no problem navigating the restaurant, entering the women’s bathroom – marked by a handicap accessible sign – proved to be a tight squeeze with a short turning radius and another heavy door. The men’s bathroom, which also had a handicap accessible sign, was easier to get into and to use, with soap, a faucet and a hand dryer all at an appropriate height.
Brenneman was polite to the Friendly’s manager, who was nervous about the impromptu inspection but eager to accomodate, as was each of the merchants the group visited. The automatic door outside was broken — the manager said teenagers broke it by repeatedly kicking and punching the button — but an employee immediately rushed out to assist the group.
At other businesses, it was the same. , at the corner of Mill Street, does not have an automated door — instead, the building has a doorbell for handicapped patrons to ring so they can be let in.
The recently constructed plaza was supposed to be the picture of accessibility, Brenneman said, since the designs were drawn with the advice of an accessibility expert.
“I remember them coming to us on zoning with drawings and we were encouraged that this was being drawn properly and everything was perfect,” Brenneman said. “But it’s not perfect.”
And some things that were constructed well have not been maintained, as the group found with some sidewalks and thresholds. In other cases, a lack of awareness created obstacles.
At Stop & Shop, for instance, a large mulch display narrowed the sidewalk and forced the whole group into the street. And sidewalks built more than 3 feet wide were frequently narrowed by parked cars overhanging them.
Crossing streets and parking lots brought a new set of problems. Throughout Unionville center, those sidewalks not part of the recent streetscape renovation project are crumbling, leaving surfaces uneven. One New Horizons resident said he has several times flipped over in his chair after a wheel has caught in a crack, despite his skill at driving his chair and playing wheelchair soccer.
Brenneman herself got a wheel caught in the crosswalk ramp in front of 7-Eleven while trying to cross to Parson’s Hardware. The sidewalk there has deteriorated and catching in a rut caused Brenneman and Grobe, who was pushing her, to get a slow start and miss the walk light.
“The goal is to make the town universally accessible. TPZ has been wonderful in Farmington. The town has adopted more stringent standards than those of ADA and the state,” Grobe said.
But, she noted, as the group traveled, a disabled person never knows what to expect when he goes out.
“You have to be very courageous to be disabled; it’s a constant adventure. Each doorway, sidewalk and building is a different challenge,” Grobe said.
Accessibility issues don’t just affect people who use wheelchairs, Brenneman said, but also the elderly and those who use canes or walkers, people recovering from an operation or mothers with strollers. And as a large segment of the town’s population continues to age – and age in place – accessibiity issues will continue to be important.
“Certainly I will continue on the commission fighting for safe access. I’ve done it for years and I’ve become more aware of it as time has gone on… you constantly have people conversing with you about their difficulties and you really don’t know until you get in the chair.”