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By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.



Published: Mon, June 4, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

BOARDMAN -- As the warmer weather of summer draws near, people of all ages are parking their cars and taking in the fresh air during afternoon and morning excursions.

Taking in the area on foot is not an easy task for some, however, and one woman is demonstrating just how difficult certain community conditions can make it for those with special needs.

On nicer days, 36-year-old Missy Skomra and her sister, Lisa Lotze, enjoy spending the afternoon walking the area around where Skomra is staying. Skomra gets ready with the usual wear of any walker -- comfortable shoes, bottled water and sunglasses with the strap to prevent slipping, but this is not the end of her preparation.

Her situation: Born with cerebral palsy, a medical condition that affects control of the muscles and joints in the body, Skomra uses a wheelchair. Before heading outdoors, she makes sure the batteries on her electric wheelchair are fully charged and a large machine she uses to communicate is in working condition.

Skomra lives in Cleveland, but is staying at Beeghly Oaks to recover from injuries she suffered in an accident late last year.

Lotze and Skomra set out for Southern Park Mall, which is about five blocks from the Beeghly building. Lotze considers the mall a safe, closed environment good for a leisurely walk and some browsing.

Getting there, however, is the battle.

Not far from the Beeghly Oaks building, Lotze points to a considerably large crack in the sidewalk, a crack most people would step over paying little or no attention. But, Lotze said, someone trying to navigate an electric wheelchair like Skomra's could easily get a wheel stuck in the crack and possibly tip over.

Another problem the woman often encounters is cars parked in parking lots next to the sidewalk so that a portion of the car's tail end or front end hangs out over the sidewalk. This blocks the walkway and those in wheelchairs cannot step on the grass to get around the cars.

Lotze said it's unlikely that this is done intentionally, but drivers sometimes forget the needs of others using the sidewalk.

Crosswalk problems: The sisters said most busy areas have crosswalks, but many of those crosswalks do not have a sloped access cut out for wheelchairs. This is a serious problem because electric wheelchairs are heavy and can be awkward when trying to maneuver on or off an elevated curb.

Township zoning officials said sidewalks are to be maintained by the property owner of the home or business of which the sidewalk sits.

Curb ramps, however, on streets such as Market, are installed and maintained by the Ohio Department of Transportation through the county manager's office.

Charlie Miner, county manager, said curb ramps are always taken into consideration with new construction and often addressed on an individual basis should the department receive complaints.

The Americans with Disabilities Act specifies that any project using federal funds include curb ramps. Miner said the U.S. Route 224 and Market Street area will be getting a complete upgrade no later than 2005.

After working around cars and other natural impediments on the sidewalk, Skomra reaches the busy Market Street and U.S. Route 224 intersection -- the last intersection before the mall.

Lotze said this intersection is obviously troublesome because of the traffic. In addition, the button designed to give walkers the walk sign to cross only allows the pedestrian a few seconds to make it across before the Do Not Walk light begins to flash again -- not nearly enough time for the motorized wheelchair to cross.

The button on the opposite side of the street is not in working order and therefore cannot change the signal.

Skomra said she has grown accustomed to ignoring the buttons when crossing, simply waiting for the traffic light to change red and crossing at that time.

"I don't think these things are done consciously, but it is a problem that needs to be addressed," Lotze said. "Independence is an important part of our well-being, and when something as small as a curb hinders us, that is very frustrating."

Ken Greene, ODOT traffic maintenance engineer, said his office was unaware of the dysfunctional push button at the Market Street-224 intersection. He said there are four employees responsible for maintaining up to 400 devices in the area.

Each push button device receives a complete signal inspection every year. Other than the annual inspections, Greene said his office relies primarily on complaints.

"We depend quite a bit on calls from the public, police departments and anyone else who has seen one of these things not functioning," he said.

What stops them: The sisters said they have not actually made it to the mall during their walks.

Both parking lot entrances, one from 224 and the other from Market Street, are not suitable for the wheelchair. The Market Street entrance has an elevated curb that Skomra is leery to cross over and the road is too steep to maintain control of the wheelchair.

Lotze said using the 224 entrance would mean walking on the road where cars enter the lot.

Southern Park Mall officials were unavailable to comment.

Lotze points out that these problems are in no way limited to Boardman, but are examples of general difficulties that wheelchair users face almost daily.

In fact, Skomra suffered injuries not long ago after falling over in her wheelchair on a sloped sidewalk in Cleveland.

Lotze said many areas are getting better and she hopes improvement continues in meeting the needs of those with disabilities.

"Anytime changes are made to help accommodate someone with a mobility problem, those changes will benefit the entire population," she added.

jgoodwin@vindy.com




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