'Out of sight, out of mind'

Last modified: 12/26/2010 12:00:00 AM
I know that there are people who think it tragic that our son uses a wheelchair. It's not tragic. Well, I did cry the first time I saw my 4-year-old roll himself around in a chair. It's not what I expected for my child. But then I saw how happy he was to be able to get around the room, around our house, around his world.

It is not tragic, but it is inconvenient. Samuel is not limited by his wheelchair. He is limited by his environment.

Stairs as low as 4 inches pose real problems for us. Heavy doors force me to contort myself while pushing Samuel through. Accessible parking spots are hard to come by in downtown Concord - and when I can get one, the location has me lowering our van's ramp into oncoming traffic.

Lots of people use wheelchairs and live engaged and fulfilling lives. Any one of them will tell you that a wheelchair is freedom, not confinement. In a wheelchair, Samuel can follow me around the house pestering me to have his friends over. In a wheelchair, he can roll to school with his classmates. In a wheelchair, Samuel can zip into his room before a long car trip to grab the CD he almost forgot.

What he can't do in his wheelchair is climb stairs.

So I was hopeful that the renovations to the facade of The Works (what I still refer to as Bagel Works) and the other stores at 34-42 N. Main St. would fix something that has long bugged me about downtown: Bagel Works is not accessible.

Why Bagel Works? Because it is an important community gathering point in our downtown. A lot of socializing happens there; a lot of business is conducted between bites of bagels and cups of coffee. Plus, it used to be one of our favorite places to go as a family.

But when the scaffolding came down, it was clear there would be no accessing Bagel Works if you use a wheelchair.

There is a bigger issue here than access to good bagels. When a community is not accessible, those with disabilities are invisible.

It's a chicken-or-egg problem. In a place that is not accessible, people with mobility disabilities are not seen. The fact that they are not seen is used as evidence that there is not a problem with accessibility.

Of the many things I worry about for Samuel, isolation is high on the list. He's 11 and has never had a sleepover at a friend's house. Not for lack of friends. It's because he can't get in to his friends' houses. Physical isolation leads to social isolation. I have lost sleep over this.

Preservation, functionality, accessibility

I spoke with both Mark Ciborowski, the building's owner, and Richard French, founder and CEO of Bagel Works. They were generous with their time and in describing what was clearly a difficult process.

Ciborowski took over management of the company that owns this and eight other buildings on Main Street from his grandfather. Over the years he has done careful, even loving, renovations to these downtown buildings to restore them to their original historic beauty.

Imagine if Jacob Ciborowski's grandson were an absentee landlord with no care for these buildings. Concord is lucky to have in Mark Ciborowski a person who loves the city, loves the downtown and is committed to bringing it back to its historic beauty.

And, as Ciborowski and others pointed out, he achieved accessibility in the other Main Street buildings on which he did renovations.

In Bagel Works, Concord has a good corporate citizen. Bagel Works' product donations support many events in our community. And it's a very welcoming place. It's common to see a high-powered business meeting and a person with a mental disability at adjacent tables. I enjoy that diversity; it feels like community.

Both Ciborowski and French say they wish they could have found a solution to this problem.

'There is no substitute for accessibility,' Ciborowski said.

'It's a balance between historic preservation, functionality and accessibility to all people,' he added. 'A ramp into the building would have to be 14 feet long to be compliant. A ramp that long would destroy the functionality of the space.'

French said that they had their architect look at the building and could not find a solution. 'It's a balancing act between feasibility and functionality.'

Ciborowski also pointed out that by bringing the elevator entrance to street level, he is turning a building that had no accessibility into one that is three-quarters accessible.

'It's the law'

The Disabilities Rights Center is concerned with the renovations to 34-42 N. Main St. because what at first seemed like a minor improvement to the facade now looks like a major renovation to the building. What's the difference? Major renovations trigger the requirement to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

'If a major renovation is done to an existing building that was not previously accessible, it must be made accessible to the maximum extent feasible, which means it must be done unless impossible,' says James Fox, a lawyer with the DRC. 'We think that the maximum extent feasible standard applies to this matter.' He went on to tell me that a report from their architect said the renovations 'appear to have blatantly disregarded the ADA Accessibility Guidelines.'

'The ADA made people with disabilities a protected minority,' he explained. 'It doesn't matter how many people a building's accessibility benefits. It's the law.' Fox is in ongoing correspondence with Ciborowski and his attorney.

Interestingly, in the course of our phone conversation I mentioned to Fox that I have personally stopped going to Bagel Works because of this issue, and that I find it difficult because, well, I really enjoy going there.

'I've heard it's a great place,' he replied. 'I use a chair so I've never been inside.'

Ciborowski has expressed frustration that the issue is coming up now, just as the alterations to the facade are nearly complete. That's understandable. The project went through all of the appropriate reviews and permits and fully meets city building and safety codes.

Building codes, however, do not guarantee compliance with the ADA. 'The ADA,' Fox explains, 'is not a building code. It is a civil rights law.'

The onus for compliance with the ADA is on the owner of the building. ADA compliance is not typically a surprise for larger-size renovations to commercial spaces because they involve architects whose job it is to know the ADA.

Complex balance

How can an historic downtown such as Concord's make itself welcoming to all? What is the balance between historic preservation, functionality and accessibility?

I don't know the answer to these questions. But we aren't the first historic downtown to wrestle with these issues.

Littleton received a grant to address, among other things, the accessibility of its downtown. Perhaps we could learn from them. Massachusetts presents the William D. Smith Award for Accessible Design and Historic Preservation, annually highlighting the best examples in the state.

There are examples here in Concord in which historic preservation, functionality and accessibility co-exist. The main entrances to the Barley House and Hermanos have stairs, but there are separate and easily-found accessible entrances. The New Hampshire Historical Society library on Park Street has a ramp made of materials that match the historical nature of the building. The ramp connecting Gibson's Bookstore and Bread and Chocolate is a clever solution, although it means that Bread and Chocolate is accessible only during Gibson's business hours.

In the case of the Bagel Works entrance, the DRC's architect suggested working with the city to create an exterior ramp on the sidewalk.

Three wishes

I have three wishes for this issue:

First, that accessibility when renovating buildings is not perceived as debatable but as simply a cost of doing business.

Second, that accessibility in our downtown generates the kind of attention and community interest that we see around historic preservation.

Third, that my family may someday resume its practice of going to Bagel Works every Saturday morning, a tradition we had to give up years ago when we could no longer carry Samuel in his wheelchair up the stairs.

It's not just my family and my cute 11-year-old that I ask you to think about when reading this column. It's your elderly relatives. It's you if you sustain an injury that causes a permanent or temporary disability. It is your neighbors and members of our community who use wheelchairs and manage the inconvenience every day.

If none of those images do it for you, consider this: The disability rights movement that brought us the ADA was started by veterans of World War I. They were able-bodied men who marched off to war and came home missing limbs and using wheelchairs only to find that their disability excluded them from their communities.

Perhaps in the future Concord building owners who are examining the balance between historic preservation, functionality and accessibility will involve people with disabilities in the process. After all, when you are experiencing life in a world that is designed and controlled by able-bodied people, you tend to get creative.

In this case, it is inconvenience that could be the mother of invention.

(Betsy McNamara of Concord is a fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations.)

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