First-person observation: Navigating Silver Spring on wheels -- Gazette.Net


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Walking from Blair Mill Road in Silver Spring to the Montgomery College campus normally takes about 10 minutes.

Not for Justin Chappell, who, in his wheelchair, must avoid hitting an SUV parked on the sidewalk, potholes, and an uneven ramp.

Chappell, a Silver Spring resident, was born with spina bifida, a permanently disabling birth defect. He can’t walk.

I met Chappell in front of his apartment complex on Blair Mill Road where he lives with his partner, Ben Spangenberg. We talked about the 24th anniversary of the federal American with Disabilities Act, the topic of a program in Silver Spring this coming weekend, and decided to take a walk from Blair Mill Road.

Justin put his hands on both wheels on his chair and began to move forward.

As we moved down the street, I asked whether he thought Silver Spring has become a more walkable and accessible community.

“I definitely agree that Silver Spring is a leading example of becoming a more walkable community,” he said, adding, “I think that addressing the needs of people with disabilities is still important to include in the conversation.”

Five minutes into our walk, Chappell has to wheel past an SUV blocking part of the sidewalk, a few steps from Georgia Avenue. He stops, looks at the space that was reduced because a vehicle is covering part of the sidewalk, and continues to move, carefully.

“Legislation can’t, unfortunately, change attitudes,” Chappell said.

We get to the corner of Georgia Avenue and East-West Highway, where there’s a road resurfacing project taking place. Chappell pushes the crosswalk signal button and moves forward after the “walk” signal turns on.

When he gets to the opposite side of the road, near a ramp on the other corner, there’s a small step that makes Chappell go backward and slightly tilt his wheelchair to get up on the sidewalk.

I watched nervously as he tried to get to the sidewalk with only three seconds left on the “walk” signal display.

“The physical barriers were removed by the ADA,” Chappell said. “You wouldn’t have easier access to things like ramps.”

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act website, President George H.W. Bush signed the act into law on July 26, 1990. This civil rights legislation prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else, the website says.

The act requires an employer not to discriminate against someone with a disability, accessibility to public transportation, and wheelchair accommodations like handbars in bathtubs and ramps on sidewalks, among other things.

Chappell’s parents fought for him to have the same educational rights as everyone else.

“We have a more inclusive education system than we used to have. ... When I was first trying to get into, attend the neighborhood school that my siblings were attending, I was told that I had to go to a special school,” Chappell, 35, said.

His parents sued the school system in Prince George’s County, where the family used to live when Chappell was 5 years old. They won their case.

“The judge said I had every right to be in the most integrating setting and to attend the same classes as my siblings. ... Basically, the school system wanted to bus me 30 minutes away from my neighborhood school,” Chappell said.

He attended The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is a former official of the West Laurel Civic Association, which represents both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Chappell is self-employed and works with corporations and nonprofits that want to reach out to specifics demographics, such as people with disabilities.

Chappell ran for a District 20 House of Delegates seat in the June 24 primary election. He finished seventh out of nine candidates.

At this point in our walk, Chappell takes a picture of two cars that have stopped at a red light. Both vehicles were blocking the pedestrian crosswalk. We wait until the vehicles move to continue our walk. We go down Georgia Avenue and make a left on Wayne Avenue.

In the next few minutes, Chappell dodges a few small potholes and two missing bricks on the sidewalk along Wayne Avenue. He has to be careful while going down uneven hills and cuts through a few buildings to avoid going up busy Colesville Road.

We then go back to East-West Highway, near Chappell’s apartment.

He has shown me what’s like for a person with disabilities to take a stroll around the neighborhood.

Before crossing the last traffic signal, Chappell says, “The ADA is no longer a teenager. ... It is transitioning to adulthood.”



abarros@gazette.net