Commentary

Valarie Schwartz: Accessible slice of Orange

May 4, 2014 

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Ellen Perry, who has cerebral palsy, is a local advocate for people with disabilities.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

We are a community of caring people. It was the first impression I got when I moved here 20 years ago, and one that has been reinforced countless times during 16 years of writing for our local newspapers. We of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and all of Orange County care about others and are not reticent to show it.

When people visit from out-of-town they see it too.

“The top comment we hear is how really friendly people here are,” said Laurie Paolicelli, executive director of the Chapel Hill and Orange County Visitors Bureau. “Natives and transplants are really proud of that. If they can make that ride into town a little easier for a visitor, they will.”

Over 30 years ago, a 22-year-old Raleigh native with cerebral palsy moved to Carrboro and made it her home. Those of you who have known Ellen Perry through the years have watched as she has evolved into an activist for people with disabilities, while slowly losing her ability to navigate town without a wheelchair. When the American Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, Perry joined forces with other people with disabilities to create the Orange County Disabilities Awareness Council, which assisted the towns in creating compliance with the ADA.

If there were such a thing as an ADA police out there, it would be Perry, who has never been shy about speaking up when someone else’s non-compliance kept her or another from participating in community life, which involves leading several groups of self-advocates with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD). She also travels around the country, giving Power Point presentations at conferences. We have been working together the past three years with me helping her craft speeches and write booklets for people with I/DD.

Paolicelli recently tapped us to create a Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Guide for People with Disabilities.

“Tourism is access – going to a place we don’t normally get to see,” Paolicelli said. “We want to make this a place that’s friendly, courteous, and mindful of people with any extra needs.” To that end, she also mentioned that the average age of our visitors is 49. With more requests for information on accessibility we’re seeing our community through the eyes of baby boomers who sometimes need more help.

We boomers who are not yet dependent upon walkers and wheelchairs are often caring for parents who are. One trip downtown with someone who is not perfectly mobile teaches the advantages of curb cuts, ramps and doors that open with the slap of a button. A small thing like a door stop makes all the difference when one is struggling to hold a self-closing restroom door open while trying to guide a wheelchair inside.

The past few years have brought a new sidewalk hazard for wheelchair riders. Sandwich boards are a real problem, Perry said. “If I’m with someone, they can move it out of my way, but when I’m by myself I can’t get around some of them.”

While preparing the visitors guide, Perry and I are touring the county, checking out recommended spots for tourists. Sometimes Perry will be in her electric wheelchair and sometimes Ill be pushing her in a manual chair. If you work at a business frequented by tourists, you may be meeting us. We will gladly tell you what changes need to be made to be included in the guide as an accessible business.

If you have special needs and know places that you would visit but can’t because of a lack of accessibility, let us know. Working together, we can make Orange County, N.C., a place known for its accessibility.

Valarie Schwartz is the former Neighbors columnist for the Chapel Hill News. You can reach her at valariekays@mac.com

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