Ronnie Neal only saw a brief flash of the vehicle that nearly killed him last year. Neal was a deputy for the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department, patrolling the streets on a motorcycle alongside his partner when a vehicle turned across traffic, trying to merge into a tight space between cars. Neal didn't see the vehicle in time to react. He woke in the hospital unsure of what had happened.
The proud, energetic deputy was dependent on his wife and children to pull him through the steady stream of surgeries to rebuild his foot, his shoulder and ACL reconstruction, with still more work to be done on his eye in hopes of recovering his vision. Neal spent months fighting pain to slowly progress from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane.
Cases like Neal's are what the Americans with Disabilities Act was designed to address. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the University of Oklahoma are teaming up in a statewide effort to assess the accessibility of the state's communities for physically challenged pedestrians.
"What we are trying to identify are pedestrian facilities, which are typically sidewalks and trails, that have portions or segments that don't meet the accessibility requirements," Richard Andrews, Title II coordinator for ODOT, said. "There is a wide range of things we will be looking at. Typical issues include sidewalk cross slope, ramp and running cross slope, tactile warnings and pedestrian signals."
All state and local governments are required to perform a self-assessment of their policies and procedures to ensure they are in compliance with the ADA. Andrews said that in the midst of the agency assessment, it was decided to extend their scope beyond the state highway system and reach out to state communities to help them to improve their own pedestrian facilities.
The task is going to be a huge undertaking since it will require trained individuals actually walking all the sidewalks and trails. OU has stepped up to help with the substantial task.
"Engineering and technology students will actually go out and walk these sidewalks, write down the data and hand it over to a database system that will build a geographic information system (GIS)," said Pamela Hockett-Lewis, OU's Project Access director.
Once the GIS is completed, the information will be placed online so the average Oklahoman can look over the pedestrian facilities of any community in the state. Hockett-Lewis also said the site will also act as a portal for community leaders wanting to learn how best to improve their facilities, which is more than just an issue of meeting ADA requirements.
"When communities are proactive, building right in the first place and providing opportunities like trails, compliant sidewalks, playgrounds that are accessible, what a wonderful draw for families looking for a place to live," Hockett-Lewis said. "Beyond the brick and mortar, beyond the classroom settings, there is also the opportunity for us to see economic gain with our businesses and our communities."
Don't look for the site anytime soon, though. The massive scope of the project means that just preparing to hit the streets will take time.
"It certainly is a multi-phase project and we will deploy as many teams into the field as we can," Hockett-Lewis said. "It won't be done in a year, but we set a pretty aggressive time schedule to get the initial system up within the next 18 months. Then it becomes how quickly we can populate those fields."
In the meantime, OU offers educational programs for communities wanting to get a jump on improving their facilities.
"We have a couple efforts going on. The university decided to start a new initiative to work with Oklahoma communities, as well as states that surround Oklahoma and to look at a holistic view of making communities more accessible," Hockett-Lewis said. "It's not just for our streets and intersections, but also looking at training, education, assessable businesses and museums."
The educational programs cover sidewalks, trails and how to effectively plan a transition program to upgrade community facilities without breaking the budget. More information on the programs can be found at www.communitytraining.ou.edu.
Andrews admits the state has a long way to go and many of the state's facilities aren't as good as they should be. He also said communities can be wary of the cost of upgrading their walkways, but that in reality, the work is fairly cost-effective since proper construction will require less maintenance in the future.
"We've dealt with a lot of local communities and once they understand the requirements, they are more than willing to accommodate. Most of the facilities that aren't compliant were constructed purely out of ignorance," Andrews said.
Neal considers himself fortunate to live in Edmond, saying that the walkways tend to be very accessible. Having worked as a patrolman, he saw on a daily basis how important it was for communities to plan their facilities to protect all pedestrians, including children, the elderly and the physically challenged.
"I kind of consider myself now as just being hurt, not handicapped, but someone who is having to deal with this for a lifetime or because of their age, it can be inconvenient," Neal said. "These things might seem boring until something happens to you and you have to deal with it. Then it becomes important." "Charles Martin