Cortland resident Crystal Brehm navigates her wheelchair along local sidewalks with a smile on her face that belies the danger many of them pose to her. Brehm, 40, who has Multiple Sclerosis and Cerebral Palsy and has used a wheelchair as her only source of mobility since the age of 21- has often fallen off of the uneven sidewalks or been stuck in the middle of dangerous intersections that don't have ample time for crossing.
On a recent walk around town, Brehm and her fiance and caretaker Matt Norton, highlighted the challenges that uneven, unplowed or improperly marked sidewalks can pose to individuals with disabilities or sight impairments.
On a walk down Main Street Cortland, the challenges started right away- most immediately at the intersection of Groton Avenue and Main Street. Because the pedestrian crossing signal was not working on the box facing where the group was standing- they missed the opportunity to cross (a narrow window of time).
Brehm also pointed out that the button to push for the walk signal is not conveniently placed on the side of the pole where she could reach it. Instead, as is often the case with these buttons, it is on the side closest to traffic- and in order to get her wheelchair close enough to it to reach it, it's often on an incline, causing a dangerous tilt.
As she approached the intersection at Groton Avenue/ Church Street, Crystal tried to navigate her chair to the button-but ultimately relied on assistance from Matt to push the button when her arm couldn't safely reach it.
"There's a certain aspect of being independent that it takes away from," she said.
Crystal pointed out that individuals with disabilities want their independence just like anyone else-to have to rely on her partner for assistance to navigate the local streets is frustrating and not equitable.
As Brehm navigated the sidewalks on Church Street, her wheelchair plowed through puddles and went over large bumps-which she pointed out are challenging enough when you're expecting them-but can really throw someone off guard and off balance if they catch you by surprise.
Watch this short video to see how Brehm navigates the bumpy sidewalk along Church Street:
Brehm and Norton provided some other examples of mobility hazards on local sidewalks:
In this picture, said Norton, it is hard for individuals to determine where the crossing area is.
Instead of a raised island in between the ramp areas, he said this should all be one large ramp that slopes down to the road. And crosswalk lines should be painted.
And for those with no depth perception, large potholes like this in the middle of a crosswalk, can easily eat a wheechair before the individual knows what happened.
Plowing snow like this, right up against the pedestrian turn signal, stands in the way of mobility and accessibility.
To individuals with disabilities, this says the sidewalks aren't for everyone.
Brehm works at Access To Independence as a peer advocate for people in nursing homes with disabilities, so she is familiar with advocacy work. Simple changes, she said, can go a long way. Longer timed crossings at intersections (34 seconds is a good duration, she said), better marked intersections and sidewalk ramps (with consideration for color blind individuals like herself -bright red or orange ramps would be more visible) and better maintained sidewalks would all be big steps to having a more accessible community.
And apart from infrastructure changes, said Brehm-something everyone can do is show consideration to individuals in wheelchairs. Think about improving your behaviors-perhaps shoveling your sidewalk thoroughly or being patient in your car. Being honked at or driven around when stuck in an intersection is dangerous and can even trigger an epileptic fit, said Brehm, so instead people should wait patiently or better yet-offer to help.
To contact Access to Independence, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
or call: (607) 753-7363 or (607) 283-4881.