Sunday, June 19, 2011

Elevators and Stairs

This blog entry marks my fifth week in DC and my fourth as an intern. Looking back I am amazed at how fast the time has gone and how much I have experienced in DC while at the same time realizing how much more is ahead. But before I think about the upcoming six weeks I would like to take a moment and reflect on my observations of DC’s “wheelchair friendliness.”

One of the first things any resident must do, especially short-term residents, is become acclimated to DC’s public transit. You will perish without this knowledge unless you have a vehicle, can afford cab fare, or plan to walk everywhere. I did not bring my car to DC, one of the things I miss the most, I cannot afford cab fare, and the geography of DC makes it impossible to walk everywhere. I have lived in NYC so I felt confident about my ability to learn DC public transit; sadly DC is no New York.

As a moderately hilly city with some very steep inclines I have found a mixture of bus and Metro provides me with most accessible travel options. However, both the bus and Metro have their faults. Bus time tables are incoherent, route maps are hopeless, and stops randomly cease to exist. Metro elevators break down all the time, at the most inconvenient times, and the “Elevator Status” on WMATA’s website is never up-to-date. Luckily I have only had a few run-ins with Metro elevator problem.

On a recent trip to the Eastern Market neighborhood I was faced with the grim reality of DC’s geographic and historic hostility to wheelchairs, a common urban planning problem in old East Coast cities. Eastern Market is beautiful. Buildings are structurally opulent. People are passionate and friendly. My gut reaction to Eastern Market: If I lived in DC I would love to live here. That feeling faded fast.

Walking through the neighborhood I became entranced by the variety of restaurants and funky shops. A bookstore instantly caught my eye and as I neared the entrance my excitement turned to disappointment. One stair is all that kept me from entering.

I began looking up and down the street at the restaurants in my mental notepad:

One stair. One stair. Two steps. One stair. Every one of the restaurants had a step. Stores, the exact same. Disappointment turned into frustration. If I wanted to live in Eastern Market and was able to find a wheelchair accessible home, I would not be able to enjoy my own neighborhood!

This is not unique to those of us in wheelchairs. It is an experience common to members of the disabled community that require physical and built environment accommodations. Simply pouring a concrete faux-ramp at a 45 degree angle does not solve the problem.

Food for thought and hoping thought turns into action.


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