Rain Rippel made it just two blocks from City Hall before the first bad curb cut blocked her way.
As she tried to drive her motorized wheelchair to the county library, she crossed Liberty Street only to find that she couldn’t get off the road.
A one-inch granite curb, almost unnoticeable to the walking public, stalled the small wheels of her chair. She didn’t dare try to climb it.
“It might be considered a curb cut, but I wouldn’t want to do it,” she said.
Behind her, the light turned green. Traffic zipped through the intersection, stopping her from turning back. She had no place to go.
So she shrugged and inched her wheelchair out into the driving lane. As she motored along next to the parked cars, looking for a curb cut that would allow her to finally get to the library, she tried to stay positive.
“Two blocks, that’s not bad,” she said.
Usually, she said, it’s much worse.
Most of the city’s curb cuts are relics from the days when one-inch lips were mandatory. The design was intended to keep stormwater off the sidewalks, but disabled residents complained that the lips were guaranteed to topple their wheelchairs.
The standard was changed and curb cuts must now be flush with the street, state DOT officials said. But at $3,000 per cut, and four cuts per intersection, progress has been slow. So far, Schenectady has been able to afford new cuts only in the downtown State Street area. Go one block past Proctors in either direction and the cuts are impassable again.
Disabled residents appealed to the Schenectady City Council for help on Monday, arguing that more cuts must be installed soon to make the city truly accessible.
“I really think that as a City Council you guys need to think of members of your community who are in wheelchairs,” said Mary Langelier, who uses a manual wheelchair to get to her life skills classes at ARC on lower State Steet. The curb cuts near ARC are in such bad shape that a staff member must help her get across them, she said.
Schenectady is putting in new cuts whenever new sidewalks are added in the annual paving projects. The trouble is that only a handful of streets are paved each year. That leaves most of the city impassable, and will for decades, residents told the City Council on Monday.
In response, Mayor Brian U. Stratton said Tuesday that city workers would survey Schenectady’s curb cuts to determine how many cuts need to be replaced and how much it would cost to redo the ones used most often.
With that data, he said, he would be willing to consider using Community Development Block Grant funds to begin the work.
“Without committing to do them all,” he said carefully, “I’m certainly willing to look at that with CDBG. We acknowledge their concerns are valid, but they have to be handled within our ability to pay for them. The first step is to get a thumbnail sketch of where we stand.”
The curb cut problem is so common that wheelchair-user Jim O’Connor has developed a method for lunging over lumpy curb cuts as he travels to stores and offices in Schenectady. The lip at the edge of most curb cuts can topple his motorized wheelchair, but the man who can only awkwardly move his arms is too proudly independent to ask for help. Instead, he positions his arms first to catch himself if he starts to fall.
The trick, he said, is to maneuver over the lip while passing close enough to a pole that he can grab it if his chair begins to topple.
“You have to be dependent on a telephone pole or something like that, to hold onto,” he said.
Rippel isn’t as adventurous. When she gets to an impassable curb cut, she waits until someone walks by. Then she swallows her pride and asks for help.
“I’d rather not, but if I know I’m going to fall, or I’m afraid of falling, I will,” she said.
She’s not afraid of the fact that she can’t get up on her own. “I’d just dial 911. I always have a cellphone,” she said.
What worries her is that her motorized chair weighs 200 pounds. When she fell over a curb in the city last winter, the chair crashed down on top of her, knocking her out. She spent days in the hospital recovering.
Manual wheelchairs weigh much less — about 35 pounds, Rippel said. She used to use one of those, but the motorized chair is better suited for Schenectady’s bumpy curbs.
“Getting up over them is easier in this chair. It’s got more power than I do,” she said.
Despite the problems, Rippel and O’Connor spoke highly of Schenectady’s new curb cuts in the downtown area.
“What they’ve done down here is great,” O’Connor said. “They’ve really done a nice job.”
He usually drives to his destinations, and then painstakingly maneuvers a special ramp in his van that allows him to get his wheelchair in and out. The process takes more than five minutes, so he’d rather travel by wheelchair if he can get to his next destination by sidewalk. Only recently has he been able to do that.
“It would have been impossible before,” he said.
Some of the curb cuts are still impossible — such as the cut Rippel came across near the library at the corner of Liberty and Clinton.
But, she added, at least several blocks of the downtown are now passable.
“Schenectady’s really picked up in the last few years,” she said.
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