EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


January 14, 2009

Disabilities become big challenge for inauguration

WASHINGTON (AP) — Bob Coward rolls along the U.S. Capitol grounds, speeding up as he nears a set of port-a-potties set up for the throngs of visitors on Inauguration Day.

To his relief, he spots the wheelchair ramp. "OK, OK, we're good," said Coward, spokesman for the Washington-area's ADAPT, a disability advocacy group. "I can use the bathroom."

Coward's test run from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial last weekend provided him an early glimpse of the challenges he and other people with disabilities could face next Tuesday, when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in. And he saw a few things that caused concern: There were missing curb cuts on some sidewalks. A cable line cover caused him to pitch dangerously forward in his chair as he crossed. And as workers mounted viewing stands on Pennsylvania Avenue, he wondered where the elevated platforms would be for people like him.

Some people with disabilities already are feeling discouraged by warnings of record crowds of 1 million or more and unprecedented security that will wall off much of downtown Washington, severely limiting parking and other transportation options normally available to them.

"I'm very deterred and concerned about access issues," said Coward, 44. "I don't want to get there and get disappointed and create a one-man demonstration."

Organizers say it is not possible to estimate how many people with disabilities will attend inaugural festivities. But they and advocates predict there will be more than at previous inaugurations, partly because Obama's inclusive message has appealed to people of all walks of life. The ranks of visitors with disabilities are likely to include some older African Americans who have waited generations to see the country's first black president.

"At every event that the (Obama) campaign did during the election, we wanted to be sure to be welcoming to Americans with disabilities, so this is certainly not something new for us," said Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. "I think just the scale is perhaps larger."

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