by Alexi Wilbourn
James Seidl is a sports buff, playing everything from soccer to tennis to sled hockey. The 15-year-old honors student tackles his school routine at an East Cobb high school, spends hours on homework, and also juggles physical therapy and working with a personal trainer. And he does it all with a mobility-restricting disability.
Cerebral palsy (CP) leaves James reliant on the use of crutches, a walker or wheelchair. Power-assist wheels on the chair help him through long days at school, while his walker is useful for short-term needs. This upbeat kid remains optimistic through it all, striving for independence (and the rank of Eagle Scout).
But the fact is, James will always have to face daily accessibility struggles. Steep driveways, such as his own, are troublesome. High shelves are generally impossible to reach. And when James needs to move his wheelchair through a crowded school hallway – it’s not without a certain amount of stress. There are many other daily challenges for James, but there are triumphs along the way, too. When he was 9, he celebrated a big milestone: taking a few unsupported steps between pieces of furniture. That’s not something just any 9-year-old would celebrate, but when your life is full of accessibility obstacles and concerns, that’s a huge breakthrough.
Atlanta ranks relatively high in terms of livability for those using wheelchairs. The city is 20th on a list of 100 ranked cities, according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Still, parents of youngsters with disabilities say there’s always room for improvement when it comes to accessibility, from removing everyday barriers that restrict their child’s access, such as sidewalks without curb-cuts, to museums and other attractions that aren’t always easy to navigate in a wheelchair.
Accessibility really boils down to two things – environmental challenges (problems in structure, design, layout, etc.) and people challenges, says Claudette Enners, program coordinator of the Fragile Kids Foundation. Enners’ son Kevin, who also has CP, uses a wheelchair and walker for mobility.
“People” challenges refer to those who tend to be unaware of their surroundings or are just downright inconsiderate of others: They let doors close in someone’s face, or pull unlawfully into specially designated parking spaces. Enners says that it’s not unusual to find moviegoers sitting in the designated accessible seats in theaters – thereby forcing her son to navigate the stairs with his walker.
Atlanta Parent spoke with many parents and professionals to understand the challenges of day-to-day life and the level of accessibility around the metro area.
Every parent interviewed mentioned parking woes. Although stores, public parks and other venues and businesses are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), parents said finding accessible parking spaces is an ongoing worry. Vehicles without the appropriate tags for using designated parking spaces continue to use them anyway, parents say.
“Getting into the vehicle, tying down the wheelchair, finding a parking spot, getting him out, pulling the ramp back into the van – everything is a process,” Enners says.
Buckhead mom Maurie Drambel struggles to park her van so that her son John, 7, can use his wheelchair ramp. She has had to drop off John and his sister with other parents and drive around for more than 30 minutes to try to find an adequate parking space, she says.
James’ mom, Lauren Seidl, echoes the grievance, wishing that people would respect the fact that no one would ever choose to be in a wheelchair. “People don’t realize how rude it is,” Seidl says. Parents we interviewed said they wish that there were more handicapped parking spaces throughout metro Atlanta, especially ones with the extra crosshatched space needed for wheelchair ramps.
Of the many attractions in and around the city, Seidl praises Zoo Atlanta, mostly because the 40-acre site “tends to be a little easier because there are more places to go.” While there are “some winding or hilly pathways on the property, the zoo and its exhibits are wheelchair-accessible,” notes Keisha Hines, director of public relations and communications for Zoo Atlanta.
The Georgia Aquarium has “people” problems at times. The state-of-the-art venue itself is fully ADA-compliant, with wide aisles, abundant ramps, and designated wheelchair access to view exhibits. Still, heavy crowds can diminish the experience for children using wheelchairs.
Aquarium visitors will sometimes stand in front of the wheelchair-accessible viewing space, or bump into wheelchairs, say both Enners and Seidl. That’s why many families take advantage of the special Georgia Aquarium day hosted by FOCUS (Families of Children Under Stress). The exhibits open early for families of children with disabilities so everyone can enjoy the popular downtown attraction.
At the World of Coca-Cola, long entry lines sometimes force patrons to wait outside, even in inclement weather. Enners’ trip involved a particularly rainy day, and she was disappointed that no staff member offered to let them in early to prevent Kevin’s equipment from getting wet. Enners adds that some exhibits in the museum were placed too high to be clearly seen from wheelchair level.
The World of Coca-Cola wants all visitors to enjoy the museum equally, and it strives to accomodate guests with special needs, says Jacquie Wansley, the marketing manager. She stresses that guests should always let an employee know if they need assistance, so that the problem can be corrected and their visit can be a happy one.
Turner Field works hard to accommodate its patrons with disabilities. The stadium will exchange tickets if the views are obstructed for those using wheelchairs. It also offers a number of services to make the visit more enjoyable, including wheelchairs at the gate, a lift to the dugout for stadium tours and low-level concession counters. Employees (driving golf carts) will also pick up visitors from their parking space in a Braves lot and take them to the front gates. Other staffers will take visitors with special needs to their seats, and phone numbers are given if the visitor needs help during a game or with exiting. James Seidl especially enjoys the Cartoon Network kids’ area at the stadium, which has interactive activities accessible to everyone.
Most children love a good puppet show and, like Turner Field, the Center for Puppetry Arts aims to make sure that every child has access to the main attractions.
“They have more experience with kids and are better with planning” for possible issues, says Mark Johnson, a wheelchair-user himself who is also director of advocacy for the Shepherd Center. Reserved wheelchair-accessible seating in the front row of one theater is a plus, and an elevator to the accessible Make-a-Puppet workshop ensures children using wheelchairs can participate in the center’s activities.
Planning is vital to the family of any child who uses a wheelchair. “Even having John in a wheelchair with me at the grocery store adds on a good 20 to 30 minutes to the trip,” Drambel says.
When traveling around town, some parents struggle with the height restrictions of Atlanta’s parking garages. Conversion vans, which often accommodate people with disabilities, are sometimes unable to fit under the low ceilings, Seidl says.
Heavy, non-automatic doors also pose a major problem for kids using wheelchairs. “If they’re push doors, he’s fine,” says Lucy Cusick, executive director of FOCUS, speaking about son Josh, who’s now an adult, “but if they’re not, he wouldn’t be able to go in.” Another issue tends to be the lack of a sidewalk ramp, called a curb-cut, in front of restaurants. At times, Josh has had to go down a block to reach a wheelchair-level accessibility, then travel back the entire block to get off of the curb after dining.
Besides the lack of curb-cuts, Atlanta is famous for lacking or having inadequate sidewalks, especially in older areas such as North Druid Hills, says physical therapist Michele Audet, who runs an outpatient clinic for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She has watched someone in a power chair move into the street to avoid jutted and cracked sidewalks.
Ellen Lindemann, the assistant director of Lekotek of Georgia, an organization that uses interactive play experiences for children with special needs to foster learning and promote their inclusion in the community, hears many concerns voiced by parents. And she has her own difficulties with the city’s accessibility –
her daughter Carla has CP and uses a wheelchair.
The inside of a restaurant or store often poses problems. Besides crowding, restrooms are a big concern, Lindemann says. Stalls can be considered “accessible” with handrails, but children with severe disabilities may need an assistant when using the restroom. Some stalls may not be large enough for two or may lack a sanitary changing area big enough for a 10-year-old, Lindemann says.
Parents shouldn’t be afraid to voice their concerns or complaints to the appropriate person. Johnson tells parents of children with disabilities to “be a little righteous.” This includes taking your child to attractions designed for everyone, even if you’re not sure if the place is well prepared for children using wheelchairs.
Parents have an important tool in the ADA, Johnson says, passed 20 years ago to remove barriers, including physical ones, for people with a range of disabilities.
“You have to ask specific questions before going somewhere,” Cusick advises. “Most places are handicapped accessible, but not always easily accessible.”
Lindemann has adapted to the challenges that come with having a child with mobility restrictions, but still always appreciates it when a stranger lends a helping hand, such as with carrying groceries or opening a door. “Most people are afraid, but some people just step right out there to help,” she says, adding that the gesture is always deeply appreciated.
Despite the inconveniences and frustrations of everyday life, most mobility-restricted youngsters remain optimistic and upbeat.
During a discussion in James’ class at school, his fellow students were asked what they would change about themselves. To the shock of his classmates, James did not say he would give up his disability. “He doesn’t know life without it,” Seidl says of her son. “He knows he wouldn’t be who he is, and he likes who he is.”
Because of ADA and more awareness about access, James and others with mobility issues are better able to get around Atlanta, whether it’s going to the supermarket, attending a ballgame or enjoying one of the city’s many attractions. Accessibility isn’t always ideal, but it continues to improve for those who must permanently use walkers or wheelchairs or those who are temporarily restricted by an injury that will heal.