Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SL: New Coalition Forms to Improve Accessibility

Often, people think accessibility is all about wheelchairs. That is until they confront a set of stairs on crutches or experience an impairment that can’t overcome physical obstacles.

“It’s been challenging to get my mother back to her active community involvement since a car accident impaired her walking,” said Saranac Lake resident and business owner Susan Olsen. “Getting her into places isn’t always possible.”

Despite recent projects that have provided improved accessibility in the Village of Saranac Lake, some residents still experience access and mobility problems because of physical barriers on sidewalks and in buildings, businesses and other places.

In an effort to identify ways to remove these barriers, Olsen came together with other local representatives to form Access Saranac Lake earlier this year. Josh Wilson of the North Country Healthy Heart Network (NCHHN) and Nathan Cox of the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living (TLCIL) joined forces with Keith Wells of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, disability rights advocate Lauren LeFebvre and Susan Waters of Patriot Hills to form the coalition.

The Access Saranac Lake coalition’s goals are improving accessibility in downtown, at local businesses, public spaces, and other destinations in the Village of Saranac Lakealong with drafting a marketing plan to promote accessible tourism destinations in Saranac Lake.

“Improving accessibility is the right thing to do for a variety of reasons,” said Wilson, who provides technical assistance and advocacy support to the coalition through a grant from the NYS-DOH Office of Rural Health. “One in five New Yorkers live with a disability, and those folks are three times as likely to be in poor health as people without disabilities. With improved accessibility, many people with disabilities can be more physically active in the community, which helps prevent chronic disease and other illnesses.”

Access Saranac Lake also wants to reduce barriers to commerce. The potential impact of the accessible tourism market sector is sizable. “There are 55 million Americans with disabilities, and they spend $13.6 billion on travel each year,” says Wells, “and many people travel during our shoulder seasons and seek out destinations that are accessible. We can attract more visitors if we improve access for all visitors, while making it easier for residents to participate in the community.”

“Downtown’s narrow sidewalks have lots of obstacles to navigate with utility poles, sandwich boards, uneven pavement, and trash cans. The historic architecture also imposes challenges like double doors and steps,” Olsen said. “I’m very aware of people who would shop at my store if they could get in the building, but there are two steps at the front door.” Olsen, who owns Borealis Color on Main Street, said she plans to remove a wall and add a new entrance with a ramp.

Wells acknowledges the burden of expense in retooling a building, and as a result Access Saranac Lake is working to highlight the return on investment that accessibility improvements can bring. Tax credit incentives are available that help business and building owners recoup some of their investment, and businesses can increase their customer base by making their buildings and services more accessible.

“We want to make it easier for people to comply with the NYS Building Code’s accessibility requirements,” says LeFebvre. “Often people are confused by the ADA requirements.” To clarify this, Access Saranac Lake will prepare a list of frequently asked questions and information resources for the Village to distribute with building permit applications.

TLCIL will offer accessibility consultations and information on building improvements to local business and building owners who are interested. “We want to help businesses identify small and relatively inexpensive changes they can make to improve accessibility,” said Cox.

Last year the Village received a grant to develop a Trails Master Plan, which will identify accessibility improvements to the sidewalk and trail networks around town. A survey to catalog the condition of each sidewalk has already been completed as part of that plan.

NCHHN staff have expertise in performing accessibility assessments and are partnering with the Village to assess public parks and recreation facilities like the Riverwalk. These assessments can be used to plan and prioritize improvements, and the information collected will be available on a searchable statewide database of accessible recreation facilities.

“We envision a fully accessible Village” said Waters, “where the door is literally open to everyone.”

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