By JESSICA LaDOW
[email protected] Published: May 23. 2008 6:00AM
Tommie Gray rocked his hips, tilted his wheelchair and rolled his way over the “fallen branches” on the sidewalk.
Maneuvering a wheelchair through difficult terrain is nothing new to him, since he lost his legs to an infection at age 4, but when others attempted, they weren’t so successful.
Chris Waychoff, a waiver-program supervisor for Voices for Independence, said he had to catch most people before they toppled over.
The fake obstacle, a part of Barrier Awareness Day by Voices for Independence, was an example of a real problem for people with disabilities.
For the seventh year, handicapped members of the community gathered at the Perry Square gazebo Thursday to teach others what sort of barriers they face in their everyday lives because of disabilities.
“We hope that every year, we make an impact in some way,” said Shona Eakin, the group’s executive director.
Eakin said six people ventured into the city to complete daily tasks while simulating a disability. That part of the event gives an even better understanding of how daily routines can be hindered by a loss of hearing, sight or mobility, she said.
Community members who weren’t available to participate in the longer session were invited to simply show up and spend 15 minutes at each station to learn about disabilities.
Interactive demonstrations included identifying objects while blindfolded, maneuvering over fallen leaves and branches in a wheelchair, and simply communicating with deaf people.
Nicole Austin, a deaf mother, said through a sign-language interpreter that deaf people can do all the things hearing people can do, and it bothers her when people doubt her ability because of her disability.
“Deaf mothers can raise their own kids,” she said.
Alan Dunfee, a part of systems and advocacy at Voices for Independence, said most people don’t realize what it is like to have a disability and go to the store, navigate the city bus system or even withdraw money at the bank.
“At Barrier Awareness Day, people can experience the disability and get a snapshot of what it’s like,” he said, and invites community leaders and lawmakers to participate so they use their experiences in their work.
Gray, a member of the wheelchair basketball team at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, said he has faced many barriers in his life, but said his close-knit family has helped him overcome them.
He said he keeps busy with sports and tries not to give up.
“You get stepped on in football, you get grabbed in wrestling and nobody wants to wake up early to go swimming,” the 20-year-old joked. “But I didn’t give up.”