This past Wednesday, a disability rights advocate and paraplegic, Frank Barham, was killed on a Georgia roadway. He planned to roll the 302 miles from Atlanta to Savannah to raise awareness for people with disabilities. He took the necessary precautions and was followed from behind by an escort van. After a tractor trailer crashed into the van, Mr. Barham was hit and subsequently killed. This is a tragedy.

Man seated in a wheelchair on a sidewalk.

Barham took on extreme risk by taking his wheelchair into the roads and on highways that are not intended for pedestrian traffic. I wouldn’t have taken that risk, personally. But it doesn’t change the way I feel about his loss and its impact on the disability community.

This tragic story made me think, though, about the condition of sidewalks in cities throughout the United States. I just returned from St. Louis last week, a city I used to call home. I can’t count how many times I had to enter the roadway in my wheelchair, due to a number of conditions which made wheelchair access to sidewalks impossible:

  • Lack of a curb cut, slope or ramp.
  • Large potholes in deteriorated sidewalk surfaces.
  • Heavily overgrown shrubbery making it dangerous or impossible to pass.
  • Poorly placed street lamps, decreasing the space available for a wheelchair to pass.
  • Cars or city vehicles blocking wheelchair or curb ramp access.

The conditions listed above forced me to enter the roadways of St. Louis. Each time, I was forced to risk my life. It would have been impossible to proceed otherwise.

This problem isn’t restricted to St. Louis. I have had to take my chances in the streets in nearly all of the American cities I have visited as a wheelchair user. Enter the roadway for a block or two, or submit to the undue burden of backtracking and finding a more accessible sidewalk? That is the choice wheelchair users face every day in the United States.

Not only do sidewalks with the limitations I pointed out above violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, they endanger the lives of our country’s disabled citizens. All it will take is a single distracted motorist to lose focus and kill a wheelchair user.

If you notice any impediments to access to the access of sidewalks in your city or one that you visit, report your experience to the local government and the Department of Justice.

Let us also offer up a prayer for the repose of Frank Barham’s soul. You left us too soon, but we appreciate your commitment to making the world a better place for us all.

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