Handicapped access is more than a theoretical concern to the Girl Scouts from Branchville School’s Troop 50669, with their friend and fellow scout Dina Jamshed, a wheelchair user.
The troop went up and down Main Street on two visits this spring, checking the accessibility of 27 businesses for Dina in her wheelchair.
“The girls found 15 out of the 27 shops were accessible for Dina,” said Pam Banks, who joins Louise Kennerley and Madiha Jamshed as the troop’s adult leaders.
Some of the shops that Dina could enter had barriers that made wheelchair entry more difficult — they weren’t completely inaccessible, but getting inside was a challenge. Others had barriers, like stairs, that a wheelchair simply couldn’t navigate.
“The girls looked to see if doorways were wide enough, if there were welcome mats that created a barrier to entering, or stairs,” Banks said. “Several shops that had mats did indicate that they would remove the mats, as they understood that it prevented the wheelchair from rolling.”
Of the 27 shops the troop visited, 21 accepted “accessibility” stickers that say: “Ridgefield celebrates accessibility: ADA — Disability rights are civil rights.”
The stickers include a place for a phone number that someone who couldn’t access a business might call, and seek assistance from store personnel.
At some of the businesses where accessibility was clearly not possible‚ due to barriers like steps, the girls got commitments from owners that the retail staff would come outside to assist people who couldn’t access the store. At others, workers promised to pass on the girls’ message to owners who weren’t present when they came by.
The girls learned from shopkeepers that changing buildings — with projects like building a ramp — is usually under the control of landlords and property owners, not retail tenants.
And speaking to one landlord the troop learned that in a downtown where buildings and sidewalks long predate accessibility concerns, there are practical, financial and legal considerations that complicate what may seem a simple issue: wheelchairs can’t get in — build a ramp.
For instance, if a property is exempt from certain regulations due to a grandfather clause, and a project is undertaken to address a problem like the lack of a ramp, then the resulting project may be required to include solutions to any other regulations the property fails to meet — but the location would have been allowed to continue without addressing any of them, if no project had been undertaken.
Before their survey of the business district, the troop met with the Commission on the Disabled. Commission chairman Don Ciota sometimes makes the point that improving accessibility doesn’t always require construction projects — in some situations procedures can be adopted that work around the barriers to access.
The girls hope to return to the commission and give a report on their survey efforts.
The accessibility initiative was a Bronze Award project for the troop, in which they are charged with identifying something in the world that they believe should change, and working to bring about the needed improvement.
This was an approach some businesses owners with barriers like steps pledged to the girls they would follow.
“I think it was good learning experience,” Banks said. “If nothing else, the girls have raised awareness and either gotten the conversation started or continued the conversation. Louise Kennerley, Madiha Jamshed and I are very proud of what the girls accomplished.”