Disabled access in SLT is not good
If there is a common thread among the disabled, perhaps it is that most just want to live like everybody else – with dignity, comfort and peace of mind.
But in South Lake Tahoe, despite vast improvements in the past few years, lifestyle parity for the disabled is still a distant dream.
“South Lake Tahoe is probably one of the most inaccessible cities around – through no fault of their own,” said David Kelly, chair of the Tahoe Area Coordinating Council for the Disabled. “However, the city and county have come a long way in the past 15 years in revamping and making areas more and more accessible to people in wheelchairs and with disabilities. The city itself has met all its compliance levels (for city facilities), the county is a little bit slower.”
Kelly is a 15-year resident who has been fighting to improve quality of life for the disabled and seniors in this community for years. He is deeply involved with the community, county and local government – and he radiates that positive energy when he speaks. But for others, such as Linda Coursey who has been using a wheelchair since birth, living in South Lake Tahoe has almost become a living nightmare.
“I’ve lived in Tahoe 14 years and hardly anything has changed. There is barely any accessibility for people in wheelchairs,” Coursey said. “Being here makes me realize that I do indeed have a disability. I used to get around as well as you do, until I moved here and realized how hard it could be.”
Beside the lack of wheelchair access, and the difficulties of wintertime mobility, Coursey said people have a lot of trouble dealing with her being disabled, as well as the sight of her “strolling”, as she calls it, in her wheelchair.
“People look at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’ – well, how else would I get around? I’m 46 years old, I don’t expect my kids to take care of me,” Coursey said, referring to how she can often be seen alone, wheeling her chair down the bike lane along U.S. Highway 50. “Some people in cars are so rude, they drive as close as they can to see how much they can splash me.”
For 15-year resident Jerry Oldenkamp, who suffers from degenerative arthritis in both knees and uses a wheelchair most of the time, life in Tahoe has become more severely limited with every passing year. Each day requires detailed planning, every errand must be carefully considered in terms of access and achievability, events or meetings either attended or skipped, depending on location and distance, and each activity or hobby curtailed by the constraints of wheelchair access.
“The main thing I do religiously is sit down every morning and figure out what I’m going to do that day, and how I will do it,” he said. “I can still walk short distances with a cane, but whenever there’s some distance to be covered, I need my wheelchair.”
Oldenkamp’s grocery shopping in South Lake Tahoe is limited to the one store that provides a powered wheelchair large enough for him to fit his tall frame into – Raley’s at the “Y”. Most grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters and casinos are extremely difficult to get around in, he said, often having flights of stairs, elevators too small for a wheelchair, no wheelchairs or powered chairs available, or wheelchairs that are just too small for him.
Oldenkamp, only 61 years old, said he realizes that although he deeply loves Tahoe, his health will determine whether he can continue to live here.
“I hate to admit that I need the help sometimes. It’s still very difficult and I’d rather just try myself. But there are also times when I just wish I’d asked for help,” he said. “In the beginning I didn’t take help well. My pride was injured. Now it’s easier. Sometimes it would just be nice if someone would push you for a while.”
Despite these difficulties, Kelly said improvements for South Lake Tahoe only happen in increments, step by step, as the money becomes available and people agree on priorities.
“We desperately need sidewalks and curb-cuts at every corner. But if we can’t have those immediately, we sure could use level stops at bus stops,” Kelly said. “Granted, this is a mountain community. But the truth is, compared to similar towns, we’re hands-above in terms of accessibility. The bottom line is – and it’s hard for someone who is not disabled to understand this – it’s not about wanting more. It’s just about an equal quality of life and wanting to live like everyone else.”
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