December 4, 2013

National Council on Disability meets in Topeka

Being Miss Wheelchair Kansas doesn’t necessarily open doors in rural Kansas communities.

Being Miss Wheelchair Kansas doesn’t necessarily open doors in rural Kansas communities.

Marie Clement of Mayetta, Miss Wheelchair Kansas 2009, said she has to carry her own portable ramps to get in and out of businesses – and even that doesn’t always work.

“There are some restaurants I can’t go to because the doors are too narrow,” said Clement, who uses a power chair. “Unless somebody wants to go in and raises a fuss, nothing gets done.”

And even when businesses do have the parking and the entrance doors to get in, a lot of times the bathroom is inaccessible, she said. She said her husband often “has to pick me up like a sack of potatoes and carry me all the way into a women’s room.”

Clement was one of several panelists to testify Wednesday to a meeting of the National Council on Disability, which has traveled to Kansas to hold two days of hearings and discussions on rural disability issues and the state’s privatized KanCare managed-care program.

The 15-member council is appointed by the president and advises the administration and Congress on policies and laws affecting people with disabilities.

Providing the scientific underpinning for the experiences of Clement and other rural Kansans, a University of Montana researcher told the panel that people with disabilities pay a hefty “rural accessibility penalty” in getting to and from the doctor, stores, restaurants and other public places.

The Montana research used the Google Maps “street view” feature to evaluate accessibility in 26 cities in 18 states and the District of Columbia, said Tom Seeker, director of the university’s Rural Institute on Disabilities.

Metropolitan areas with populations of 50,000 or more averaged 93 percent accessibility and no city fell below 80 percent, he said. The smaller towns averaged 42 percent accessibility and none were above 75 percent, he said.

Seeker said federal agencies spent more than $3 million to study the movements of wolves and the elk they hunt, and the DNA in the hair of grizzly bears. But “there is no scientific program to monitor the status of accessibility as it changes over time and participation from people with disabilities in the community,” he said.

All of the panelists cited lack of transportation as a big part of the problem for the disabled in rural communities.

In cities, complaints about transportation center on buses: when they come, where they go, how long they will wait for a disabled person to board, said Gary Maddox, executive director of the Southwest Center for Independent Living in Springfield, Mo.

“In rural America, first of all, they don’t even know what a bus is,” Maddox said. It’s common for people in power chairs to have to ride in the back of an open pickup, he said.

“If they have to bundle up to get 25 or 40 miles to the doctor, that’s what they do,” he said.

Audrey Schremmer, executive director of Three Rivers Inc. in Wamego, said the access problem is linked to changes in rural areas. Her organization helps those with disabilities.

In years past, she said, most mothers in farm families were stay-at-home moms. Now, with farming less profitable, the women are starting small businesses to help make ends meet.

But those businesses tend to locate in older and inaccessible buildings. And they are generally small and marginally profitable operations that don’t generate the cash needed for renovations to accommodate people with disabilities.

“While we’re getting expansion of business in small areas, we’re having less access to those businesses,” Schremmer said.

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