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  Official 'Awareness':
When simulations work

by Ed Eames

As part of the blind community, I have been opposed to disability simulation exercises, believing they lead more to fear than to enlightenment. However, other members of the Fresno ADA Advisory Council, a cross-disability group working with city government agencies, persuaded me to go along with their desire to inaugurate the first Disability Awareness Day on October 15, 2003 with disability simulation activities for city officials.

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cartoon of man pushing empty wheelchair

The director of the Department of Public Works was very unhappy with a couple of the curb cuts he had to traverse to get to the lunch venue.

The results were astounding.

Members of the City Council, the County Board of Supervisors and top administrators were invited to take part, and 15 wheelchairs were borrowed from a local provider for the officials to use for a day. The date selected, October 15, is White Cane/Guide Dog Safety Day, and symbolized the cross-disability nature of the event.

Each nondisabled wheelchair user was paired with a real disabled wheelchair user and a nonwheelchair using volunteer. After some short speeches at City Hall, the fifteen participants were given their assignments and sent on their way. For the next hour and a half they rolled around the streets in the downtown Fresno area.

Here are some of the results:

A City Council member almost fell out of his chair while going down an improperly constructed sidewalk ramp. After going through mud-lined streets, he needed lots of Handi Wipes to get himself clean!

The head of the Fresno transportation system was never picked up at the bus stop where he waited for more than 40 minutes. Rolling down one curb, he almost got immobilized when caught between the down curb and uplifted asphalt in the street. He is now arranging for all of his top administrative personnel to go through a similar exercise.

A Board of Supervisors member was asked to leave the lobby of an office building; she and other wheelchair users were accused of interfering with a postal worker's ability to deliver the mail! The request was made by an irate attorney whose office was located in the building, and astounded the supervisor. This encounter opened the way to discussing the prevalence of attitudinal as well as physical barriers.

The director of the Department of Public Works (which oversees the installation of curb cuts/ramps) was very unhappy with a couple of the cuts he had to traverse to get to the lunch venue.

Several members of the California Department of Transportation became aware of the significance of curb cuts as they wheeled about the area. The ADA Council is negotiating with CalTrans to put curb ramps in on state-controlled overpasses on Route 99 as it goes through the city; now, we think, we are more likely to get them in the immediate future than we might have had this exercise not taken place.

More than 75 individuals showed up at lunch in the nearby state building, and the ersatz wheelchair users shared some of their experiences with the audience. Lots of verbal commitments to support the ADA Council's efforts were made. Now it is up to us to translate these promises into reality!

The biggest disappointment of the day was the lack of publicity. Unfortunately, just two weeks before the event, we learned that President Bush would be in town that day for a fundraiser. He got all the media coverage and raised a couple of million dollars for his campaign! Next year we'll have to check with the Bush campaign to determine when he will be in town!

Posted Dec 11, 2003

Ed Eames chairs the Fresno, CA ADA Advisory Council.

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