Imagine having to be somewhere, but not knowing where you are, or when your ride will arrive, or whether a stranger will harass you on your way.
For a University of Southern Maine student who is almost totally blind, a South Portland activist with multiple sclerosis and a woman with Down syndrome living independently in Portland, that’s everyday life.
The uncertain circumstances they face on a daily basis are just some of the hurdles for people with disabilities navigating the streets of Portland. The cobblestones of the Old Port that some might find quaint are more like a minefield for wheelchairs, and the wearisome winter weather isn’t just a headache but a legitimate safety hazard.
From aging infrastructure to unsympathetic attitudes, several factors contribute to how accommodating a community is to people with an assortment of disabilities. Through a survey, the Portland Disability Advisory Committee is seeking to identify the biggest barriers within the city — before knocking them down.
Mark Perriello, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, based in Washington, D.C., said he could not compare Portland to other cities in terms of accessibility. However, he said, small cities in rural locations tend to present the most challenges for people with disabilities.
A big part of that is public transportation, he said. Along with frequent and consistent bus service with accessible stops, Perriello said, some larger cities also require taxicabs to accommodate physical disabilities.
But it’s not just about having ramps and handrails.
“Attitudinal barriers are sometimes just as big as physical barriers,” he said.
At the latest monthly meeting of the Disability Advisory Committee, members talked about training city bus drivers to be more mindful of blind passengers by announcing upcoming stops. They noted that even buildings that have access for people with mobility issues often put those accommodations away from the main entrance, creating a sense of isolation and segregation.
Here’s what a day is like for each of them.
For Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, the blind college student, the city’s haphazard layout makes it hard for him to find his way.
Renee Berry-Huffman, the South Portland woman who has to use a wheelchair, often misses appointments because the ride services she uses arrive too late.
Christina Mailhot hides out in her apartment to avoid being made fun of for her developmental disability by people on the street.