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Foss: Schenectady is hard to navigate for disabled

Foss: Schenectady is hard to navigate for disabled

Foss: Schenectady is hard to navigate for disabled
With sidewalks in such poor condition on DeCamp Avenue, Jon Simms has to take to the street with his wife, Nicole.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Jon and Nicole Simms live near Schenectady's Central Park and walk there frequently, and when I joined them Wednesday, it was cool but pleasant.

The path was clear of snow and ice and fairly smooth, and we cut a brisk, even path around Iroquois Lake.

"We like it like this," Jon Simms said, as he pushed his wife in her wheelchair.

Nicole Simms was diagnosed with the rare disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis five years ago, and uses a wheelchair to get around. ALS gradually destroys the nerve cells that control muscles and she is mostly immobile.
 
But that doesn't mean she never goes out, and a daily outing is still a big part of her routine.
 
Those outings aren't without difficulties.
 
The sidewalks on Decamp Avenue, where the Simms live, are so rough that the couple doesn't even use them - they walk in the street, on a section of pavement that's relatively even and flat.
 
And while the Simms credit the city of Schenectady with doing a better job of clearing Central Park of snow this year than in past years, there are still times when Jon Simms will bring a shovel along on walks, in case he has to dig out a blocked crosswalk himself.
 
Sometimes the Simms go elsewhere to walk, to other parks and paths. This requires driving on bumpy, pothole-ridden city streets - an experience Nicole Simms described as "jarring."  
 
"The city streets are just horrendous," Jon Simms said. "A lot of streets I just stay away from because I can't anticipate where every bump is going to be."
 
It's no secret that the poor condition of Schenectady's roads and sidewalks can make getting around town difficult for even the most able-bodied of people.
 
But for those with mobility issues, navigating the city is especially challenging - an unpleasant, even dangerous, experience. The problem is exacerbated by winter, when unshoveled sidewalks and poorly plowed streets create additional hazards and barriers.
 
To learn more about the obstacles faced by the city's disabled population, I spoke to people who use wheelchairs, walkers and canes.
 
Their stories made it clear that Schenectady is failing residents with physical handicaps, who struggle, often in silence, to go about their daily business.
 
Sixty-year-old Mike Dunsmore uses a wheeled walker and cane due to painful neuropathy in his legs.
 
I met him on State Street, where he was resting at a bus stop while out on a walk to a Family Dollar store - a trip he makes frequently from the non-profit anti-poverty agency Bethesda House, where he has an apartment.
 
It's a trip that became a lot more perilous in the aftermath of the massive snowstorm that brought Schenectady to a standstill in early December.
 
Unable to use his walker because of unshoveled sidewalks, Dunsmore took his cane - and fell three times.
 
"I was slipping on the snow," Dunsmore told me. "My legs gave out. The sidewalks are a big issue for guys like me. All I have to do is slip and break my head, and it's all over."
 
Winter might pose the biggest challenge, but getting from point A to point B is difficult in all seasons, Dunsmore said.
 
"Even when the sidewalks are clear, I have to lift up my walker when I'm walking because the sidewalks are so uneven," he said. Bethesda House helps out by giving him occasional rides, but "there are times you might need something and you've got to find a way to go out and get it."
 
Bethesda House resident Tracy Keane told me that she fears getting stuck in the snow in her wheelchair, and will stick close to home if sidewalks and streets aren't clear.
 
Like Dunsmore, Keane, 49, made it clear that deteriorating sidewalks are a year-round problem. If a sidewalk is really uneven, she'll take to the street, rather than risk tipping over while going over a bump.
 
"I don't want to get in the road," said Keane, whose right leg is amputated above the knee. "It's not safe."
 
Many of Schenectady's sidewalks lack curb cuts - small ramps that make it easier for people using wheelchairs and other wheeled devices to cross the street.
 
The city's accessibility problems go beyond streets and sidewalks.
 
Beverly Elander, a Stockade resident who uses a walker and "a multitude of canes" because of arthritis in her knees, said many local restaurants just aren't accessible to people with mobility issues.
 
For Elander, who writes restaurant reviews for The Daily Gazette, the lack of access is frustrating - and also takes an emotional toll.
 
"You feel left out," Elander said. "You feel like a second-class citizen. ... It's not a good feeling to be missing out on something other people have."
 
Schenectady's accessibility issues aren't unique.
 
More than two decades after the American Disabilities Act became law, it's clear that accessibility issues remain a chronic problem for the disabled in municipalities all over America. A number of cities, including Atlanta and New York City, have been hit by ADA-related lawsuits over the lousy condition of their sidewalks.
 
It would be nice to see Schenectady and other Capital Region cities become more welcoming places for the disabled - to take people with physical handicaps into consideration when developing new programs or policies, or delivering basic services. Private businesses should also step up and add ramps, elevators and wider doors as needed.
 
"I would like city policies to include accessibility concerns," Nicole Simms, 55, told me.  
 
"Can we be a city that's a smart city accessibility-wise?" Jon Simms wondered.
 
It's a good question.
 
And while critics will harp on the cost of upgrading the city's streets and sidewalks, I'd like to think it's possible to improve Schenectady's overall accessibility..
 
After Nicole Simms was diagnosed with ALS, the couple considered relocating, but opted to stay in their home near Central Park.
 
"We decided that being here and being able to wheel out to the park was crucial," Jon Simms said.
 
"I love this city and I want it to be better," Nicole Simms said.
 
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.   
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