Navigating Orcas with a disability

An estimated 13 percent of San Juan County’s population has a disability and approximately 6.5 percent experience ambulatory problems. That means more than 1,000 county residents have mobility issues.

“Since I use a walker and a scooter, a lot of the stores either have stairs or there is a difficulty in access in the doorways,” said Orcas Islander Grace Grantham. “It would be nice if there was either better access to the stores or the doors were open more for people.”

Grantham is one of the mobility-impaired community members who has experienced the difficulty of living on an island full of aging buildings. The shops and offices around town were not originally built to accommodate wheelchairs and scooters.

“It is important to all of us that people with disabilities are able to maneuver around and can access everything without restrictions,” said Marlace Hughes, co-owner of Ray’s Pharmacy in Eastsound. “We are constantly measuring and positioning fixtures to help make that possible.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. This act, which includes a 2008 amendment and an expansion on its 25th birthday in 2015, prohibits discrimination based on disability. One requirement is that public accommodations be made so that all persons, regardless of mobility, have access.

Orcas stores like Ray’s and Island Market have been proactive in making sure their facilities are available to all patrons.

“I would like to express my gratitude to Island Market for their sensitivity with handicap parking spots and an electric cart,” said Susan Osborn. “It has made grocery shopping accessible for me and a real pleasure.”

Osborn recently began using a cane to aid her walking and became more aware of the plights facing people with limited mobility.

“I can notice now how curbs and uneven ground are a big challenge. Parking is always a challenge and I tend to go only to businesses where it is easy to park. Steps, lack of ramps or steep slopes, comfortable seating are challenges,” said Osborn. “Of course, because I am dealing with these things now, I am more sensitive to the needs of those even more challenged than I. I can see how folks become isolated because it is too much of a hassle to get around. And then, we as a community, are robbed of their presence and gifts.”

With the approval of the Orcas School bond during the last election comes an ADA upgrade to the campus. Two years ago Superintendent Eric Webb was informed that students and community members with limited mobility were having difficulty entering school buildings.

“The district has been in compliance with ADA regulations but accessibility is still difficult at best,” said Webb. “The addition of electric doors became one of the priorities in bond planning … It is our goal that all members of the community have equal access to our programs and buildings.”

Installation of the new doorways will begin Dec. 4.

Osborn noted that even though some physical aspects of the village are not disability-friendly, the community itself has been active in assisting her through her mobility problems.

“People are always asking if they can be of some help, and I have learned the great joy of being able to ask for and accept their help,” said Osborn. “Sometimes I really need to do it myself as I don’t want the skill to atrophy. But often, it really is helpful and both of us get the benefit of this exchange of kindness.”

Grantham said that acknowledgment and education is the key to expanding accessibility.

“A lot of people forget that there are people with disabilities or one day it could be somebody you know who needs to have better access,” said Grantham. “It’s just something you have to teach people.”