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For people with disabilities, and hard-to-access buildings are only part of the problem

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GREENFIELD — As he regularly watches cars whizzing by along Ind. 9 on the north side of Greenfield, Bob Burrows says motorists stop at the red light at McClarnon Drive only if the mood hits them right.

While everybody else risks a ticket for running a red light, Burrows says he’s risking his life when he crosses the busy state highway in his motorized wheelchair.

Burrows has multiple sclerosis. The disease has also affected his vision, so the former cop doesn’t drive. At least twice a week, Burrows, 62, scoots across State Street to run errands only to be met with blaring horns and profane gestures from impatient drivers.

“I’ve heard a lot of horns; I’ve heard a lot of people yelling at me as I go by,” said Burrows. “(One) lady … tried to see just how close she could get to me, and then she honked her horn all the way by.”

From problems in parking lots to inaccessible buildings, Burrows and other local residents with disabilities say the community needs more patience and understanding for those who struggle getting around.

County and city officials are updating plans to renovate public buildings and sidewalks to meet requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As local residents with mobility and vision problems appreciate efforts to plan ahead, they also hope the general public shows more common courtesy, especially during the busy holiday season when patience and parking spots are difficult to come by.

For Burrows, parking can be a problem when someone is driving him on errands. But relying on someone else is not always an option. Burrows enjoys his independence, and that includes taking himself on errands instead of being cooped up in the house.

Burrows first started noticing signs of MS more than three decades ago.

“When I was 33 years old, it started out I would drag my left foot like, every fourth or fifth step,” he said. “Then it progressed where I was dragging my left foot every step. Then it got to the point where my left arm just hung by my side.”

Burrows leaned on his son – who he described as also a friend – for support as the disease forced the Vietnam veteran and State Police officer into an office job. He was an insurance adjustor 15 years but retired early around 1997.

Since then, Burrows has been using a wheelchair to get around, often to the Hancock County Public Library where his wife, Mary Lynn, works and he volunteers. Burrows will also use public streets to shop at Kroger or Wal-Mart, avoiding most sidewalks because the bumps cause his body to scoot down in his chair and it’s difficult to adjust.

He picks McClarnon Drive to cross five lanes of traffic on Ind. 9 because most of the other crossings have turn lights, which can be even more dangerous. Ultimately, Burrows would love a pedestrian light at the intersection, to slow down traffic and make it easier for him to cross.

As it is now, going the maximum 7 mph in his chair, the traffic light turns green before Burrows is even done crossing.

But city engineer Mike Fruth says the Indiana Department of Transportation is hesitant about adding a crosswalk along the busy thoroughfare. Burrows hasn’t recently broached the subject to local officials but says a crosswalk would not only help him but also other pedestrians who cross the road from neighborhoods west of Ind. 9 to shop.

Burrows has become used to picking his battles when it comes to accessibility issues. Sometimes, he’ll veer his wheelchair through fast food drive-throughs to get a bite to eat. A few restaurants, he said, haven’t been remodeled to accommodate a wheelchair.

“Why should I have to sit there and inhale exhaust fumes just to go and get something from their store?” he said. “In a perfect world, something would be done with that.”

Restrooms are also a “huge problem,” he said, because people without disabilities will use the large stalls.

“I’ve learned over the years that I have to control my mouth,” Burrows said.

His friend, Jim Matthews, has also learned that showing courtesy to others may become reciprocal.

Matthews, 56, also uses a motorized wheelchair. He’s had a neuromuscular disease his entire life, but since the late 1990s, the condition has gotten progressively worse. Matthews went from using a walker the majority of the time to using a wheelchair.

He’ll often take his dogs for walks on the west side of town. His efforts were pivotal in getting the city to install a crosswalk this year to connect the Winfield Park neighborhood to the Pennsy Trail.

But when Matthews drives his van to the store, he’ll sometimes park in a van-accessible spot only to come out minutes later to find somebody parked on the blue hash marks that delineate the extra space required for the vehicles. He can’t get back into his van.

“I’d had it; I just plain had it,” Matthews said of his frustration three weeks ago in a parking lot at a local realty company.

Matthews had 250 business cards printed that read, “Excuse me! I know you do not intend to be uncaring. Yet, you have parked in such a way as to make it impossible for me to use my accessible equipment.”

Matthews says the message doesn’t need to be rude.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, that’s too nice,’” Matthews recalls. “(But) I don’t want to give them an excuse to be mad at me. I want them to read it and think about it.”

Sometimes it’s people without a disability placard or license plate who park in the marked spots. Other times, Matthews said, the culprits are people with a placard who don’t think about those in wheelchairs.

A total of 13,711 disability license plates or placards are registered in Hancock County, according to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. An additional 160 temporary disability placards are in use.

For Ruby Smith, a parking spot sometimes simply isn’t available. The elderly Morristown resident often shops in Greenfield with her sister, Geneva Brown. On a recent trip to a grocery, Smith noticed several cars parked in disability spots without placards at all.

“I’ve never really paid any attention because us not being in a hurry, you know, and we have quite a bit of time, we usually just wait until there’s a handicap spot open,” she said.

But no close parking spots became available that day. She helped her sister, who uses a walker, slowly into the store, where they asked a clerk to look into the problem.

“Leave the disability spots for the disabled ones, the ones who really need it,” Smith said, adding that the problem is always more prevalent during the busy holiday shopping season.

Problems with parking are common everywhere, said Ric Edwards, chairman of the ADA-Indiana Steering Committee. Edwards uses a wheelchair himself, after an accident as a teenager left him paralyzed. It’s particularly bothersome, he said, when people park in the blue striped areas for van accessibility.

“It’s a matter of education, not only for people with disabilities but for people without that this is not a parking space,” Edwards said.

Edwards suggests people contact store managers if they notice someone parked incorrectly. Managers can then contact police.

Greenfield Police Maj. Derek Towle said people can also contact police directly, but parking problems can be difficult to monitor.

Towle said officers will write tickets for illegal parking, but it’s hard to tell whether someone is able-bodied but is using his grandmother’s placard and parking out of convenience.

“Occasionally we’ll get a phone call; it’s usually at Christmastime when more people are out and more people are vying for those spots,” he said, adding that by the time an officer arrives after a phone complaint, the car may have already been moved.

Those who use wheelchairs must always think ahead about where they’re going and if they’ll be able to get in, Matthews and Burrows said. From narrow aisles in grocery stores to historic downtown buildings with no ramps to heavy doors to businesses, parking issues are just one piece of the puzzle.

While city and county officials ponder how to improve accessibility in public places, people with disabilities have noticed improvements locally. The Greenfield post office, for example, is a historic building that has been modified for people in wheelchairs.

Local nonprofit organizations also assist people with mobility, vision or hearing problems. Hancock Area Rural Transit is a great resource to get around town, Greenfield resident Rodney Polston points out.

Polston is blind due to a gunshot wound to the face five years ago in Rush County.

“(By) the grace of the good Lord, I’m healthy, everything works. It’s just I have a prosthetic nose and I’m blind,” said Polston.

Polston said the sidewalks and public buildings in downtown Greenfield are fairly smooth and easy to navigate. And whenever he doesn’t know where he is, he simply asks his iPhone.

The Hancock County Public Library is also a good resource, he said. With computer screens that can be magnified for the visually-impaired, to accessible computer stations to push-button doors, assistant director Dave Gray says the library strives to keep up to date with technology.

On Tuesday, Hancock County Commissioners approved a 10-page ADA transition plan with a caveat: The target completion dates for more than 100 items were removed. Not knowing how much money is going to be available in the coming years for the $1 million worth of problems that need to be fixed, commissioners said more work needs to be done with the county’s fiscal branch to make sure funds are available.

But President Tom Stevens said he doesn’t want the plan to just “sit on the shelf and collect dust.” He encouraged county employees to keep working at it, and also get input from the public – in particular people with disabilities.

The plan will be on the county’s website for review; people may contact Joe Hollis or Rusty Burgess if they have concerns. Both employees were named ADA coordinators for the county.

While Burrows is grateful for steps local agencies and elected officials have taken, he also hopes the general public can open its eyes a little more, too.

Still crossing Ind. 9 even in the cold winter months in his wheelchair, Burrows said the Christmas season is just as bad if not worse than any other time of the year with whizzing traffic and loud horns. Some people focus more on rushing around during the holidays, Burrows said, than thinking of others.

“People with disabilities don’t move as quickly as (people without) do, and they don’t have the physical capacity that other people do,” he said. “They need to understand that and be a little more tolerant.”

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