Yesterday I met up with an inspirational guy by the name of Tom Roetzer. From what I can tell, the only difference between me and Tom is that he uses a wheelchair to get around. Of course Tom has not always been dependent on a wheelchair – he was a super active guy before his life was altered. But guess what? I would venture to say that today, Tom is more active than me. The guy is always on the go.
During a lunch meeting at Pano’s, Tom introduced me to a world that I thought I knew a lot about. Actually, because I have been writing about people and businesses for so long, I do believe that I have a pretty good grasp about the issues that Tom has to deal with on a daily basis. Of course I am referring to the issues that revolve around ADA compliancy.
The reason that I was even fortunate enough to sit down with Tom was because he sent me an email, explaining that he had attended one of my events, and he had found it very cumbersome to get inside the party area of the building. Before the event, my committee had done its due diligence, to ensure that the we were being as compliant as possible. But in the end, what you and I might think is acceptable, isn’t acceptable in the eyes of those who must navigate the terrain.
Fortunately, Tom was not calling me out, chastising me, or blaming me. Rather, he was enlightening me. He wanted to share with me (and you) the problems of accessibility. Tom has already tackled the issue of mobility – he enters races, he drives, and he’s determined to get into the places where he wants to go. Getting there is one thing – getting inside is another. You and I will look at one step in front of a business, and don’t think twice about it. Now, take a look at the step and picture a wall – a barrier to a business, or a restaurant.
“I have been told by store owners that it’s not a priority for them, because they have no customers who use wheelchairs,” said Tom [laughing]. “Can you imagine. The way I look at it is that the business just lost out on me spending my money. Do you know that one in five Americans has a physical disability? I would like more people to be aware that just because they don’t see a lot of people in wheelchairs, doesn’t mean that we are not here – Buffalo needs to be more inclusive. The disabled population is the most discriminated minority. Take a look at the building across the street [pointing] – see that one step that prevents me from doing business there?”
As I looked across the street to the business that he was referring to, I thought back to an article that I had written a couple of years previously. The subject was Luke Anderson, a Canadian who had been injured while extreme mountain biking. After spending a few years acclimating to his condition, he set out to make a difference in his community. He was determined to be proactive when it came to accessibility. Luke started The StopGap Ramp Project, an initiative that got people building ramps (to spec) for businesses just like the one that we were talking about.
Tom told me that he was not familiar with The StopGap Ramp Project, which I found surprising since it was a pretty big project in Toronto. At the same time, I felt that, once again, we were both in the same boat because there is an ongoing learning curve for everyone. And when I think of learning, I think of opportunity. The more people and groups and projects that we can identify, the better chance that we can become a city that is not only understanding and accepting and inclusive, but proactive in the way that shows it.
Just by meeting with Tom, I am once again driven to be proactive in the different ways that I look at the world. I will try to not only look at things through my own eyes, but his eyes. When he tells me that he is determined to get back out on the golf course, I know that he will find a way. And he has found a way – by teaching others that the solutions exist, as long as there is determination and commitment on the other end (those who hold the keys to unlocking the doors).
While Tom says that the issues that concern him are getting better, there’s still a long way to go before this city is access friendly.We have sidewalk curb cuts today – can you imagine what life for Tom would be like without them? Tom clued me into the new accessibility icon, which for me sums up so much about what we we’re talking about. Can you see what a symbol like this can do for empowerment? This symbol is full of action and life – it’s an entirely different message than what we have all been accustomed to for years. I look at this graphic and I think, “What else could we be doing? What are the easy lifts? What are the real issues? What are the solutions?”
Maybe we can get a version of the StopGap Ramp Project started here? Maybe we can get the City to clear our sidewalks of snow, just as it takes care of our garbage and recycling? Maybe we can get a Paramobile for the Olmsted Parks so that Tom can play golf instead of simply dreaming about playing? There are countless ways that we can all make a difference when it comes to being inclusive rather than exclusive.
What’s apparent is that most people don’t think about all of this because they don’t have to. Life can be complicated enough without worrying about people that we don’t know. It always takes a tragedy in a family, or with a friend, to get people to wake up and think about these issues. Just remember what Tom said – “One of five Americans has a disability.” Then think about this – it’s only a matter of time before we all get old – every one of us. And with old age comes physical impairments. It’s inevitable. Can you imagine if we lived in a city where, as we age, we can do the same things that we took for granted when we were younger?
Before I left the lunch table, Tom handed me a couple of pieces of paper. Last August I wrote about a Buffalo based website called Full Access Travel. Now Tom was introducing me to another quality of life site called Access Buffalo – he had printed out a full-blown checklist of Pano’s (lead image), and how many ADA requirements had been met. Obviously, he had chosen Pano’s for a reason, besides the good food. The table top was tall enough for him to sit comfortably. There was a parking space designated for him. The bathrooms were accommodating. Pano’s apparently gets a gold star when it comes to accessibility. Now how many other Buffalo businesses can you say that about?