Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Not so sweet home Chicago

A recent federal study found housing bias against people with disabilities greater than any other minority group in Chicago. As Chicago has a long, ugly history of housing discrimination, this is not completely surprising. Being a native of Chicagoland, however, I was still disappointed, if not surprised. A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Chicago's Millennium Park's access with pride. I'm not so proud now. I'm reading the study and I'll be interested to see if Chicago was picked for the study site for a reason or just because. More on the study at Rolling Rains.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Access to greatness

I admit I have a soft spot for Lincoln. Anything Lincoln attracts my interest. I think it is an effect of growing up in Illinois. You get Lincoln pounded into you. All Illinois Scouts at some point go to Springfield. Probably a school trip too. Heck, even our local grade school, though it's in Wisconsin, takes their eighth grade trip to Springfield.

So I knew I wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial, which inexplicably to me our family had skipped when I was a kid and we visited DC. I was pleasantly surprised when I found there is an elevator to the gallery of the monument. Did you know that? The entrance is on the left side of the building. There is a unique little book store -- just a nook really -- off the gallery as well. Our little one got a envelope of mini post cards there that she still looks at. "There's the soldiers" she says for the photo of the changing of the guard at the Tombs of the Unknowns. "There's the pointy thing" she says for the Washington Monument. And there are bathrooms on the ground floor by the elevator entrance with a decent accessible stall.

The photos above show we made it.
And despite the elevator, the girls just had to do the stairs --- twice. No thanks, for me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A tale of two cities' -- transit that is -- or who needs a ramp out in Hackensack

My wife and I grew up in suburbs just west of Chicago -- Stickney and Berwyn respectively. Consequently, we were used to using public transportation to get around. I can remember going to Wrigley Field as a seventh or eighth grader with a bunch of friends to see a Cubs game, riding the bus and el into Chicago -- no adults needed. This must have been someone else's idea since I, as a south sider, was a Sox fan. My wife commuted to work at Amoco Oil from a couple different transit systems as we moved around the 'burbs.

But now we live in Wisconsin. I would not trade WI for IL ever. I love my adopted state. But we really don't get a lot of opportunities to use public transit, living in a little town built around a quaint lake in an area where you drive -- or walk -- or you stay home. But with this year's vacation taking us to Washington DC and New York City it became clear we should get back on the bus, train and subway. In both locations, we didn't want to spend the big bucks to lodge right in the center of things, opting instead for suburban locations -- Largo, Maryland in the case of Washington and Ridgefield Park, New Jersey in the case of NYC. These were fortunate choices. Both were located within minutes of a transit facilities -- in the case of the hotel we stayed in in Largo within walking distance.

From a standpoint of ease of use for the disabled, the DC Metro subway system was a dream. Every station accessible. Very little gap between the platform and the cars. Roomy, comfortable, cool cars. A big plus for us was friendly and helpful staff who helped us figure out the fare pass system. Everything was as advertised. We did find an elevator out of service at a station we were in, but it was only for maintenance and a workman took another wheelchair user and us up and then continued with his original task. Granted we saw only a limited number of stops in DC, but the Metro system seemed very good for the disabled traveler.

Our experience with New Jersey Transit, by contrast, was more disappointing. I had carefully researched the transit situation in the NYC area. I found which stations were accessible. I made sure to find out how getting on and off trains was supposed to work. I had schedules and timetables. We were ready for NJ Transit. But we distinctly got the impression that NJ Transit wasn't ready for us or anyone using a wheelchair. All of the conductors we encountered really seemed flustered by our son's chair. The accessible stations were supposed to have plates available to bridge the rather large gap between the cars and the platform. In only one case was a plate available, and then it had to be unlocked and carried over. In most cases we just sort of helped Marcus across the gap half rolling and half lifting him across. OK for us, as tourists and one-time visitors. But I had to think there would need to be a lot of educating going on to be a regular traveler on this line in a wheelchair. Doesn't anyone use these trains? If not, maybe I can see why. The caper was on the ride back from the Seacaucus station to our stop at the Essex Street station in Hackensack. The conductor, mild panic in his face, asked us where we were getting off. We said Essex Street. He said "Oh no, we don't have a ramp there." We said there was one, we had used it to get on the train that morning. Then he remembered. I was struck that this conductor didn't know which stations were accessible -- a whole seven out of 16 on this line . I can only assume it doesn't come up that often. That was reinforced by a NJ Transit employee basically ordering people to make room so we could get on. It seemed obvious to me that the people in the handicapped area of the car didn't realize they had to file down the aisles if a wheelchair was to make it onto the car. My first thought -- rude people. But then I thought, you know, I bet they have just never seen this happen before.

Clearly to me there's only one solution. If you find yourself in the position to use the Metro subway system in Washington DC do it. Reward the foresight that designed accessible facilities.

And if you find yourself in a position to use NJ Transit trains, do that too if you can. Hold them to their advertised accessibility. Get them used to customers with disabilities and perhaps it won't come as such a shock next time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The good parking

Well we're back from vacation. In fact, we've been back for over a week. But you know how it is when you return from a trip. It takes a while just to get back into the swing of things. Chores to catch up on around the house. The day job to readjust too.

So that's why I haven't been blogging. On the other hand, I'm back fresh from a trip so I think I've got a bit of material to share.

First up, we travel by van in the tradition of the good old American car trip. With three children, ages 15, 13 and 5 people think we are nuts, but the driving is often the most relaxing part. That's right I said the most relaxing part. We're blessed with good travelers true. But while we're making miles on the highway we're together as a family and there is little else anyone has to focus on. It's nice.

driving means you have to park once in a while. A good chunk of our miles this year from Wisconsin to Washington DC and then to New York City and then back to WI were on the Indiana and then the Ohio and then the Penn tollroads or turnpikes. Pretty easy and convenient traveling. The tollroads are really their own little world. Self contained. No trying to figure out where you might get off the interstate to eat or make a bathroom stop. They have those service plazas every 25 to 30 miles with gas and food and plentiful restrooms. In general, these buildings are made to handle crowds and be convenient to maintain, so they are pretty accessible too. Open hallways, no stairs, the etc. Funny how that works isn't it?

Off the tollroads, it wasn't long before we saw the first of a couple examples of senseless abuse of disabled parking. At a truckstop in Breezewood, PA we got out for food and other necessities. Couldn't find a spot at first that could accommodate our lift. No problem, we're used to improvising in these cases. We parked in a more remote area of the lot so there was a space next to us. Hopefully it would remain open when we needed it. Then I noticed that there was a van pulled lengthwise across two van accessible parking spots. What was up with that? Surely that wasn't a legit user of the parking. I can't imagine why you would need to do that. Maybe it was a delivery. Someone just running in and then out. That would be wrong, but perhaps someone thought they wouldn't be causing a problem for long. I staked out the van the whole time we were on the stop, perhaps 20 minutes. As we were leaving, I figured out it belonged to some workman, working on a sign on the building. What I couldn't figure out was why they thought they needed to take up two spots designed for a very specialized purpose. And why did they have to add insult to injury and park across two?

I use those spots when I have my son in the van so I can get him in and out. Workman, you use it why? 'Cause it's close? Think about it next time.