N.J. Press Association award-winning column
Learning a new way of getting from here to there
© Today’s Sunbeam
Slanting slopes, rambling ramps, open-air lifts, closed hallways and mysterious buttons — this was my first adventure in true handicapped accessibility in Salem County.
Until last year, I never gave much thought to the ramps, elevators and handrails that have been cropping up in public buildings and other places since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
But last year my former love of walking was replaced by the need to go slowly, using a cane (on a good day), and on a bad day — the need for wheels. Because multiple sclerosis left me unable to walk more than a short distance, I got myself a powered scooter.
You know the kind. Maybe you’ve seen them in commercials accompanied by a jingle with the words, “Now I can go to the mall!”
Or perhaps you remember the one that the character George was riding on an episode of the television show “Seinfeld” when he pretended to be handicapped in order to get a job.
Although I wish I was pretending, I’ve had to accept the fact that I am handicapped. Certainly not as bad off as many others, but going up or down steps is troublesome for me.
So riding my scooter around downtown Salem City was kind of fun.
The first time I approached the wheelchair ramp in the county courthouse, it looked daunting to me: a long, sharply sloping concrete thing.
I expressed my fears, and my amusement, to a gentlemen standing near the ramp, and he laughed.
“Just make sure your brake’s working,” he said.
Thinking I would sluice speedily down the slope, I proceeded apprehensively and instead coasted slowly to the bottom.
There I encountered a push button before the doorway. Now those handicapped push buttons for doors are great things, although you probably never think about them much.
When you’re in a wheelchair, or a scooter like mine, it’s kind of tricky to push the door open and then get your motorized chair through the door before it slams shut. The push button is set up so that the door opens before you reach it. Handy.
Inside this basement entryway to the courthouse, however, I found the inner door locked. A sign instructed me to pick up a phone on the wall to call the guards.
Several minutes later, two officers appeared and asked me what I wanted to do in the courthouse. They then asked if they could look in my pocket-book.
I said, “Go ahead.”
Looking a little flustered, one guard said, “No, you have to open it yourself and show us.”
Having heard about men who are afraid to enter a woman’s pocketbook, I tried to joke with the guard.
“No, ma’am, I’m not afraid,” he said in a very serious manner. “You have to open it for us.”
Since the man was obviously in no joking mood, I revealed the contents of my purse and the guards let me in, leading me through the law library to the elevator. It was smooth sailing after that through the courthouse halls.
My experience in Woodstown, at the post office, was a lot homier. In this case, I was walking with my cane and I saw an odd-looking contraption next to the steps.
There were no signs indicating what it was, and I assumed it was for packages. So I walked slowly up the steps inside.
After I had transacted my business, I noticed that there was a door leading to the open-air lift, and the sidewalk below. I also noticed that Liz Smith was standing there.
After we exchanged greetings, we started talking about the lift. She said that, yes indeed, it was to carry people up and down but she had no idea how it worked. She asked one of the postal clerks, and with some instruction, we entered the lift.
Liz pushed the button, and we started down. I whooped in delight. And the lift stopped.
So she pushed the button again and it started again. And stopped.
After we finally figured out that you had to keep your finger on the button to keep the lift moving, the lift slowly lowered to the sidewalk.
Postmaster Bill Worrilow told me later that the lift was designed with a non-automatic button as a safety feature to prevent the arms or legs of people on the street from getting caught in the lift’s mechanism.
“We didn’t want someone to lean over from the outside,” he said, “and send it going up.”
Just one of my ramping experiences was less than satisfying. I went to a dentist office and found a handicapped parking spot leading to a ramp inside the office.
It was a relief to find this ramp so handily, so I caned my way to the top and saw there was a door. But when I went to open it, it was locked.
A hygienist appeared at the window and said she’d be right over to unlock it. Obviously, this handicapped entrance wasn’t used much because I heard the sound of her footsteps as she went after a key.
When she finally came back and unlocked the door, I was led right into a cubicle with a dental chair — in which a patient already sat having her teeth examined. It wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences for either of us.
Whether sharp slopes or plodding lifts, with one exception, I’ve found out that ramping can be fun.