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Volunteer with Dejerine-Sottas to help evaluate business accessibility (Chelsea, Michigan)

September 16, 2010

Filed under: People

Ashley Wiseman didn’t intend on making handicap accessibility in Chelsea’s downtown district her mission.

It just ended up that way.

Earlier this year on the Chelsea native’s 21st birthday, Wiseman wanted to celebrate at Cleary’s Pub because she thinks it has the best atmosphere and food in town.

But there was one problem: Wiseman suffers from a rare neurological disease that has bound her to a power wheelchair, and Cleary’s, like many businesses in Chelsea, is not wheelchair accessible.

“Cleary’s is totally inaccessible to me,” Wiseman said, explaining that while a manual wheel chair user would have less trouble getting into Cleary’s, she would need a portable unfolding step to make it inside from the front entrance.

Cleary’s owner Pat Cleary and other business owners seem more than eager to work with Wiseman and the Downtown Development Authority’s accessibility subcommittee led by Paul Frisinger, who is also Wiseman’s grandfather.

“When we found that Cleary’s only had a five inch step (Ashley and I) began talking about accessibility, and thought that maybe the DDA could help,” Frisinger said.

The committee has had a couple of preliminary meetings and is hosting presenter Carolyn Grawy, director of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, at the Chelsea District Library at 8 a.m. Sept. 17.

Frisinger said the public is welcome to come and participate in addressing the task of making Chelsea a more “accessible friendly community.”

The subcommittee intends to discuss ways to mitigate construction costs, assist in planning and aid in securing grants and lower interest financing to pay for the architectural improvements that will be necessary to make the downtown more accessible to visitors with special needs.

Chelsea’s downtown has already seen improvements to sidewalks and the removal of old electrical wires that were out in the open on Main Street. Future redesigns of the downtown could include significant ramping as a result of the subcommittee’s study.

Frisinger said the timing is perfect with initiatives like Think Chelsea First and other efforts promoting Chelsea around the state and across the country.

That’s why Wiseman and Shana Mote, both members of the DDA study committee on accessibility went on a “roll thru” town this summer to evaluate the state of accessibility in the downtown as it currently stands.

Wiseman said she feels privileged to be able to help out.

Born with Dejerine-Sottas syndrome, Wiseman has gradually lost mobility since birth, which has given her experience with a broad range of accessibility issues.

“I haven’t always used wheelchairs, but it got worse as I was growing up,” Wiseman said.

Those born with Dejerine-Sottas syndrome have trouble moving because of interference between the central and peripheral nervous systems. The central nervous system cannot communicate with the peripheral nervous system that extends throughout the whole body.

“As I grew up and grew taller, that interference increased, and as I’ve grown up my disability has worsened,” she said. “After my spine was fused to treat my scoliosis I couldn’t bend, so I started using a power wheelchair on a full-time basis.

“Before that I was able to get out of my manual wheelchair and conquer that one step at Cleary’s. But you can’t easily lift a power wheelchair like you can a manual one.”

Any business with a step out front is a literal roadblock to Wiseman and others.

During the “roll thru,” Wiseman said that she was pleased to find that many businesses have back entrances often accessible through alleyways, but she said that one of the committee’s goals should be to make those paths friendlier.

Despite many businesses having some accessible entrances, there are two problems that Wiseman noted: the first is that they’re hidden and rarely indicated with signage and secondly they are not given the same aesthetic consideration as the storefronts facing major traffic on Main Street.

“A lot of them require you to go through an alleyway where the businesses keep their trash and the walls aren’t as well kept,” Wiseman said. “It also presents an issue of dignity and safety. It just doesn’t feel very nice using this alternative entrance that no one puts as much care into. And quite frankly at night it doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable going into an alley that isn’t very well lit.”

Another concern is whether or not there is someone who can help open the door. Wiseman has a helper dog, but sometimes she still needs assistance.

Signage, better lighting, general improvements like plantings and even art murals and other amenities similar to those in the alleyway near the Pottery Shed and Pierce’s Pastries would go a long way to making Wiseman and others feel better about Chelsea’s accessibility.

“If we can give those businesses that do have rear accessible entryways the resources to improve them, I think the will is there to do so,” Wiseman said. “Ideally I would like to see people with not just disabilities use the alleyway. Able-bodied people could have their pick.

“I’ve talked to women about strollers and how they can be a real pain getting into some of these places.”

She also said that the committee would be brainstorming on how to help businesses like Cleary’s, which do not have a rear or alley entrance.

Frisinger said the committee has a lot of work ahead of it due to the historical designation that blankets much of Chelsea’s downtown district.

Historical districts are not subject to the same Americans with Disabilities Association guidelines that businesses outside of such boundaries are subject to.

The Chelsea business community’s participation will be voluntary and based on willingness stemming from good will and a common interest to bring more people to downtown busi-nesses.

Wiseman, who works with the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, said she has seen accessibility draw customers to businesses in town.

Frisinger pointed out that Chelsea also has a large senior population due to the Chelsea Community Hospital and various senior living facilities in town.

“The number of people locally who accessibility is a concern for or is going to be a concern for in coming years is growing as well as tourism,” Frisinger said.