The will for a way

Disabled Augustan works to make city accessible



Some of the most radical changes brought by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 seem commonplace today.

Take the strobe lights on fire alarms in public buildings, for instance. Twenty years ago, a deaf person would have no clue why everyone was running out of the building -- unless he or she could see smoke or flames.

There were no curb cuts for people in wheelchairs to cross the street or ramps to grant them access into a building. The blind had to rely on luck or kindhearted strangers to let them know when they were approaching their bus stop.

"Everything changed," said Tim Hollobaugh, an ADA advocate who has been confined to a wheelchair for nine years because of Lyme disease.

For all the good that ADA has done, its requirements have to be enforced for any changes to come about.

The curb cuts in downtown Augusta, for example, are only as good as their design. Some are too flared or steep, and a wheelchair will tip over if it hits the asphalt too hard. Some sidewalks are overgrown with grass, which makes it difficult for a blind person sweeping the sidewalk with a cane to find the curb. When sidewalks peter out on side streets, a person in a wheelchair is forced to ride in the street with cars coming up behind them.

Flat, smooth, grass-free sidewalks do exist, but they're useless when they're blocked by garbage cans.

These are the little things that Hollobaugh and others with disabilities encounter daily. They're almost invisible to able-bodied people, and that's why Hollobaugh fights so hard to bring Augusta into compliance with ADA standards.

Hollobaugh said it took five years and a condemning review of accessibility by the U.S. Department of Justice to get city leaders' attention.

Augusta is hardly unique in its approach to ADA compliance, Hollobaugh said, but accessibility is especially important in this town because of its higher-than-normal percentage of people with disabilities. That's attributed to its abundance of hospitals, including the one belonging to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Changes are coming, though.

Almost the full distance of Walton Way, from the sheriff's office to Jackson Road, will get new curb cuts. Similar work is being done to Laney-Walker Boulevard.

Every time a road is resurfaced, the curbs will be cut to improve accessibility.

The county is holding a disabilities awareness event in January. Public facilities are being reviewed for ADA compliance under the watchful eye of a full-time employee whose sole job is to make sure Augusta is accessible to people with disabilities.

"The county and administration have all become dedicated to making Augusta one of the most accessible (places) in the Southeast," Hollobaugh said.

Jacqueline Humphrey, who enforces ADA compliance and equal opportunity employment for Augusta, echoed that sentiment.

"We're trying to get a feel for the needs" of the handicapped, Humphrey said.

Besides the ongoing projects, the city is also making sure that there are adequate and accessible shelters for the disabled during an emergency.

Renovations for accessibility can be slow in an old city such as Augusta where the historic buildings were built decades prior to ADA, Humphrey said. But every new building built by the city -- the recently opened downtown library, for instance -- is built to code, she said.

What the ADA cannot help Hollobaugh with is the simple fact he cannot walk away from difficult situations. Before he got his motorized chair, Hollobaugh was pushing himself around in a manual wheelchair. A hard bump on one of the curbs cracked his wheel and Hollobaugh was suddenly "dead in the street."

"I sat there and I sat there until a citizen in a truck came by" and took him to a shop that could repair the wheelchair, Hollobaugh said.

His electric wheelchair's battery gives him about 20 miles of travel, but it can overheat and break down. Hollobaugh has some tools in a saddlebag on his chair that he can use to make basic repairs, but a major breakdown means he has to rely on either a taxi service or a friend with a truck to help him out.

He has waited all night for rescue. A Gatorade bottle was his toilet.

"That's all I had at the time," Hollobaugh said.

A past liability of traveling in a wheelchair is missing the last bus out of town. That spells bad news when the sun goes down.

"The first time it happened I was scared to death," Hollobaugh said.

The advent of a handicap-friendly taxi service in Augusta has made those nights a distant, if expensive, memory.

"That was a major life change," Hollobaugh said.

For all its limitations, the ADA has granted incredible freedom to people with disabilities, Hollobaugh said, and allowed them to better integrate into society. In Hollobaugh's opinion, one of the best initiatives that has come out of ADA is the classes that educate community and business leaders about people with disabilities.

"We all have a lot to give," he said. "Just because our legs or our eyes don't work doesn't mean our brains can't contribute to society."