Portland seeks better access for people with disabilities
Like others with disabilities, Renee Berry-Huffman knows how difficult it can be to get around Portland when winter ice and snow build up on the city sidewalks.
The city’s warped bricked sidewalks and cobblestone streets are charming to visitors but challenging, or even dangerous, for many residents. And, to some people with disabilities, Portland’s public transportation system can be difficult and unreliable and its downtown businesses inaccessible because of steps at the entryway.
“The sidewalks are atrocious in the city,” said Berry-Huffman, a 52-year-old South Portland resident who has multiple sclerosis and has been in a wheelchair since 2009.
Berry-Huffman said she got a concussion when her wheelchair tipped over as she was getting off a public bus onto an icy sidewalk. She got another concussion when her wheel caught the edge of a curb cut and she was thrown from her chair.
When going to restaurants, Berry-Huffman said she must wait at the front door to order and have it brought out. At retailers, she’ll either have to go through a back entrance or have workers bring clothes outside for her to see.
“For some people, it’s very overwhelming. Some people have panic attacks,” Berry-Huffman said. “We need to come together to talk and share and see what we can do to make this better.”
The forum is hosted by the Portland Disability Advisory Committee, which was created in April 2013 to advise the city manager about ways to make Portland universally accessible to people with physical, cognitive and mental disabilities. The committee, which meets monthly at City Hall, is also intended to be a resource to surrounding communities.
The committee, on which Berry-Huffman serves, believes that people with disabilities have the right to participate in all community activities and should have equal access to all programs and services. It also believes the input from disabled people should be valued and considered in the city’s decision-making, goal-setting and policymaking processes.
Mayor Michael Brennan said the group has already recommended that the city begin including closed captioning for meetings that are broadcast.
“I think that’s a good idea,” he said.
Brennan said many of the infrastructure challenges will be more difficult to correct, but there is still a lot the city can do.
“Clearly, a lot of it has to do with the built environment,” Brennan said. “But there are other ways to use technology to give more people access to the city.”
For 35-year-old Adam Zimmerman, who is legally blind, the biggest obstacle is the lack of a highly functional public transportation system.
Zimmerman, who grew up and graduated from Portland schools, found it easy to get around in Boston and San Fransisco, communities in which he attended school and that have convenient public transportation.
But now Zimmerman, an attorney, has to either take a taxi or “bum rides” from family and friends to get from his Deering Center home to his downtown office to see clients, since the city bus system runs so infrequently.
“We haven’t made it easy for people to get around the city. It’s astounding to me,” Zimmerman said.
Also, more people with disabilities need to be welcomed in the work environment, not only in grocery stores, but also in professional offices, he said.
“Businesses expect someone with disabilities to be low-functioning,” Zimmerman said, emphasizing that disabled children, especially, need to know they can be productive members of society.
Zimmerman, who serves on the committee, is confident the committee and public forum will be able to make a difference in people’s lives.
“We are definitely on top of a lot of issues. More importantly, we’re putting those issues to people who can do something about them,” he said.