A tough road | SierraSun.com

A tough road

Jason Kelley/Sierra SunWheelchair users in the Truckee-Tahoe area face a variety of obstacles.

Todd Wolfe powers himself onto a newly installed lift that will take him to his second story bedroom, where he will sleep for the first time in over a year.

The makeshift elevator fashioned from Jet Ski lift allows Wolfe to access a bigger bedroom in his Glenshire home, a bedroom that can accommodate both his manual and power wheelchairs, a commode chair for use in the shower, a standing machine so he doesn’t get osteoporosis, a lift that helps get him in and out of bed and a motorized twin bed.

Wolfe, 37, is getting used to adjusting his life after a motocross accident in March 2005 left him paralyzed and without feeling in his legs or hands. Although remodeling his house is costly ” which includes a lift in the garage, special hinges to make doors sit back, installing lever handles on all the doors, putting straps on heavy doors and the refrigerator, removing all carpet and redoing the kitchen and bathroom ” Wolfe has control over what goes on in his own home.

It’s accessing the rest of the world that becomes unpredictable.

Wolfe recalls trying to get through Truckee to therapy appointments in his power wheelchair: sidewalks that drop off, dips and cracks in the pavement, delivery vans that block ramps, heavy doors that are impossible to open and newspaper racks in front of automatic door openers. Then there’s the problem of trying to find a parking space.

“You think you can find handicap parking, but you can’t,” Wolfe says, emphasizing the uselessness of a handicap placard. “Everyone has those things.”

The story is the same for Bridgette Weiszhaar, a wheelchair user who lives at the Truckee Donner Senior Apartments and uses her power wheelchair to get to Safeway from her apartment. Because there are not a lot of sidewalks on her route, the 61 year old accesses the bike trail or wheels in the street.

“I’d like to see the sidewalks go into a ramp rather than drop off by the medical building and hospital,” says Weiszhaar, who uses the bus when she can and calls Dial-A-Ride in the winter.

Romayne Smith, who lives in the same complex as Weiszhaar, swears by Dial-A-Ride. The Truckee-run service is wheelchair accessible, runs on a schedule and stops right at the door for pick-up and drop-off. Smith can make all her appointments and doesn’t have to rely on her family to pick her up ” unless she has to go out after 5 p.m. That’s when Dial-A-Ride stops its services.

Wolfe, who is having his van remodeled to accommodate his wheelchair so he can drive, never uses the Dial-A-Ride service because the van only shuttles to Glenshire twice a day at times that are inconvenient to his schedule. There is no other transportation option for Wolfe other than to rely on friends or family.

“I would like to see public transportation in Glenshire,” Wolfe says.

On the North Shore, the Tahoe Area Regional Transit Authority’s buses are wheelchair accessible, but those buses stop running after 6 p.m. There is no other option locally for wheelchair users because none of the cab companies offer accessible taxis. The closest option is in Reno, an hour away.

“Transportation is an issue,” says Candace Cable, a member of the Paralympic Nordic Ski Team who lives in Tahoe Donner. “Nothing is reliable or consistent.”

Although not all local businesses have ramps or ways for wheelchair users to access buildings, many people say the area has come a long way.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George Bush in 1990, and it requires private businesses and public agencies to make buildings and facilities accessible to the disabled.

The North Tahoe Public Utility District is currently auditing all of its buildings, including parks and recreation facilities, to update them to ADA standards, according to Steve Rogers, general manager of the district.

“Many of these things that we take for granted, we want to make sure that someone accessibility-challenged is included,” Rogers says. “We have to look at everything we do.”

The cost of the upgrades will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and will be prioritized at future board meetings, Rogers says.

The Tahoe City Public Utility District has modified or retrofitted most of its buildings, according to assistant General Manager Cindy Gustafson. All of the bike trails are also at the required 5 percent grade or have hand rails, and Commons Beach has ramp access, she says.

She noted that there are plans to put in a detached outside elevator at the Tahoe Community Center but that the project will cost $1 million, which is not currently in the budget.

The Tahoe City Public Utility District also makes sure that the businesses plow their sidewalks in the winter.

“We notice the business if they don’t meet requirements of ordinances,” says Layne VanNoy, parks superintendent for the district. “We have a process in place and give them warnings [if they don’t shovel]. …It’s always a challenge to talk to the right person.”

In Truckee, Town Manager Tony Lashbrook says that all town-owned buildings are ADA accessible, including the historic train depot. The Town Hall has an elevator and snow removal at public buildings is a priority, Lashbrook says.

Although the town is responsible for enforcing state building standards that apply to construction and remodeling, it does not regulate local businesses who do not shovel or plow in the winter unless there is a complaint, Lashbrook says.

“We don’t have adequate staff to tour the town looking for accessibility issues,” Lashbrook says. “The approach is to meet the intent of the regulations.”

Wheelchair users say most Truckee businesses are good stewards and accommodate them.

“Sure it’s a mountain town, and geographically, things are not always flat,” says Bill Bowness, a paraplegic who lives in Glenshire. “But it’s also a small town and people see disabled people as part of the community. They connect a face with that ramp. They’re most likely to put it in because they know you.”

Mark Wellman, a low-level paraplegic who lives in snowy Tahoe Donner, says the community is helpful.

“The snow removal is way better than it used to be,” says Wellman, who has lived in Truckee since 1991. “Truckee has come a long way. Definitely. I’ve seen a big change.”

Wellman noted that the plow drivers know not to berm-in his driveway in the winter. Cable, who also lives in Tahoe Donner, noted that her plow service clears her driveway at no cost.

“It makes a big difference,” Cable says.

There are countless opportunities for those who are disabled to enjoy outdoor activities in Tahoe, and organizations abound to provide adaptive equipment for those who may need it.

The Tahoe Adaptive Ski School, which is run by Disabled Sports USA Far West, provides ski and snowboard lessons and adaptive ski equipment at Alpine Meadows, and holds a winter sports camp every year. In the summer, the organization offers four-wheeling back country access, cycling, golf, kayaking, sailing, water skiing and whitewater rafting. A rock climbing event will also be held this summer in conjunction with Mark Wellman.

Wellman, an extreme athlete who is disabled, operates No Limits, which holds rock climbing events in Tahoe and around the country.

Candace Cable, a local member of the U.S. paraplegic Ski Team, will begin Turning Point Tahoe this summer to bring additional outdoor activities, like cross country skiing, snowmobiling, camping and overnight bike trips, to the disabled.

Eight years ago, Cable worked with California State Parks in the Sierra District, which includes Tahoe, and conducted an audit to see what accessibility services all the parks within the district offered.

“Everyone was pretty good,” Cable says. “Pretty much, all the parks within the Sierra District are accessible.”

Cable says the parks that did not fair well upgraded their facilities and now all bathrooms and showers are accessible, as well as most trails within the parks.

She noted that D.L. Bliss State Park on the West Shore is the toughest site to access because of the steep hills, but that Donner Lake is the easiest to get around because it is so flat. Emerald Bay also has a wheelchair accessible port-a-potty in the campground area and camping pads.

The local ski resorts have also come a long way, according to Wellman.

“When they built ski areas they weren’t thinking about disabled people coming to their resort,” Wellman noted. “There are a lot of places that are accessible.”

In 1992, Squaw Valley Ski Corp. was sued by Judith Leiken, a skier who found that the resort’s High Camp was inaccessible to wheelchair users, according to New Mobility, a nationwide magazine for wheelchair users. After an order from a judge, Squaw Valley updated its facilities to meet the American with Disabilities Act and is now “a different place,” according to the magazine.

Now, area ski resorts offer accessible facilities and reduced ski tickets for disabled persons and seniors. Contact individual resorts for information.

For more information on activities for disabled persons in Tahoe, Truckee and beyond, visit Disabled Sports USA Far West at http://www.dsusafw.org or call (530) 581-4161.

“I’m just trying to keep positive and keep moving.”

Todd Wolfe, 37, was injured in a motocross accident in March 2005, which left him paralyzed and without feeling in his legs or hands. Wolfe, who owned Timberwolfe Tree Service and Snow Removal, is acquiring new skills through the state’s vocational rehabilitation program so he can become a tool salesman. Wolfe, who is remodeling his boat so he can go duck hunting, has hopes of playing quad rugby. The Glenshire resident also wants to become a motivational speaker to help those who have are newly-disabled.

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