As Coreen Faulkner stood at the Higgins and Pine intersection Tuesday afternoon, an unleashed dog ran up to her seeing eye dog, Kaiah, wanting to play. Kaiah’s natural reaction with the loose dog jerked the leash in Faulkner’s hand, pulling her as she struggled momentarily while the other dog’s owner quickly said “sorry, sorry,” then chased after her dog’s trailing leash and walked away in embarrassment.
It was a typical hindrance for Faulkner while walking around downtown Missoula. On Tuesday, she was part of a group of about 25 people discussing the obstacles facing those who are visually impaired and wheelchair-bound. While the city strives to comply with the American with Disabilities Act, sometimes even the best intentions fall short.
As the group left the Health Department building at 301 Alder St., the problems became apparently immediately. Peter Drakos tried to maneuver his self-propelled wheelchair down a curb cut to cross the street, but got stuck after quickly rolling down the ramp then trying to push up about a 5 percent grade just to reach the middle of the street — where once again he rolled down toward the curb and bumped across the cracks to access the sidewalk.
He made the crossing after a friend pitched in, then helped him navigate the rest of the sidewalk, where Drakos was challenged by manholes, packed snow and a driveway until he got to Higgins.
“It’s always interesting going down this sidewalk,” said Drakos, who volunteers on numerous boards including Missoula’s bike/pedestrian advisory committee. “You just have to commit through it, because if you want to get to the next block you need to take that chance.”
The tour Drakos and Faulkner participated in is part of an ongoing effort to help better connect people with disabilities to their communities. That’s one goal of this week’s undertaking to update Missoula’s Downtown Master Plan, with a group of professional designers helping Missoulians explore innovative thinking about what the area should look like in a decade.
Ben Weiss, the city’s bike/pedestrian program manager, said as people participate in design sessions running from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Public House through Thursday, they should consider a variety of items that enhance downtown Missoula. About 300 people already weighed in during two Monday sessions.
Weiss wants people to look at the downtown land uses, which should include a mix of destinations, commercial and residential services, and night life. They should think about buildings and entryways, whether they are inviting, varied and interesting. He hopes people will consider the overall bike network, as well as safety and access features, which was the reason for Tuesday’s downtown tour.
The results of this week’s work will be presented from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday at The Wilma.
As Tuesday’s group headed south down Higgins, Weiss pointed out how a half-inch lip and some trees and parking meters separate the bike path from the sidewalk. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, the lip no longer is up to code and the trees also present obstacles for visually impaired walkers.
Chris Sillar, a visually impaired mobility specialist for the Montana Independent Living Project, adds that the “sandwich boards” that stores place to advertise their wares also are impediments, as can be sidewalk tables and chairs. As he walks, lightly tapping his white probing cane past a sandwich board with a metal roof about 4 feet off the ground, Sillar notes how a smaller person he’s teaching to walk with a white cane could possible walk into it, causing a head wound.
Even the cracks in the sidewalks present challenges. As Sillar swings his cane from left to right and back again, it gets stuck at times in deep cracks, divots and uneven terrain.
“You need to develop a really light touch or (the cane) gets stuck in cracks and that’s enough to drive the end into your stomach,” he said. “This is why visually impaired citizens are inclined to stay home.”
He pauses with the group stopped at Higgins and Pine to explain why the crossing is dangerous. The arrow on the Accessible Pedestrian Signal points a bit to the west while the sidewalk across the street is due south. The slight beep emitted to direct visually impaired people to the crosswalk button is so quiet it’s difficult to hear above the truck traffic.
The post on which the signal is mounted is about 3 feet away from the bumpy orange pad — known as a truncated zone — that signifies the entrance to the crosswalk so that delivery trucks that might cut the corner don’t knock down the post.
And the truncated zone, which is supposed to be from edge to edge across the sidewalk, is about a foot short on each side.
“If I came up to this corner, I wouldn’t be able to find my button, and the tactile arrow on it should point to the other corner, but it doesn’t,” Sillar said, adding that the planters around the pole also pose hazards. “Just because something is up to ADA standards doesn’t mean it’s usable.
“Let’s not say we can’t. Let’s say we can. I hear a lot of excuses walking around; tell me instead how we can do something.”
To Travis Hoffman with Summit Independent Living, the lack of handicap accessible parking is one of the largest deterrents he sees in downtown Missoula. He’s counted the available spots, and Missoula is 27 spaces short, according to a federal formula based on the overall number of parking spaces.
“Secondary is the age of some buildings; you really notice the entrances and doors that are set back in. It’s hard for anybody in wheelchairs to get through those doors,” Hoffman said, pointing out the inch-high door sill through which his motorized chair barely fits. “At least the door opens inward.”
Ward 2 Councilor Jordan Hess, who is director of transportation for the University of Montana, already was familiar with some of the concerns voiced on Tuesday’s tour, and said he’s pleased that others are learning about barriers people face every day.
“When you’re talking about creating an accessible downtown, it’s incredibly important that everybody have the right to access it,” Hess said. “I’m fortunate to not have to face those barriers every day. When you think about mobility through their lenses, it’s so illuminating.”