Dangerous curbs challenge people with disabilities

Before you judge a man, the old saying goes, walk a mile in his shoes. 

Yet before most people could possibly understand what James Curtis experiences on a daily basis, we’d have to roll a mile in his wheelchair.

James, who is 46 and lives in Buckhead, relies on his wheelchair and MARTA to get around. He volunteers and receives treatment at the Shepherd Center every day.

Curb ramp at 2020 Peachtree Rd - Shepherd Center entrance

A pavement gap between the road and the curb ramp made the Shepherd Center inaccessible to people using wheelchairs.

Recent changes to Peachtree Road made travel there even more challenging for James and others with disabilities. During the fall, the Georgia Department of Transportation repaved the three-mile section of Peachtree between Buckhead and the entrance to Buford Highway.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires curb ramps to be flush with the road pavement. But on Peachtree, GDOT often left a one to two-inch gap between the curb ramp and the travel lane.

“You would think if they are going to repave the road, at least one of them could pour a little of the pavement to even up the crosswalks for people with disabilities,” he lamented.

cropped - Wheelchair user on bad sidewalk on Ptree Rd

For James and others, cracked and uneven sidewalks make traveling on Peachtree Road difficult and dangerous.

On October 30, Shepherd Center patients and PEDS partnered to lead a “roll” to demonstrate what it’s like for wheelchair users to navigate broken sidewalks and poorly designed ramps. Three wheelchair users, including James, led several able-bodied individuals, including a television producer, local advocates and PEDS CEO Sally Flocks, on a 1.5 mile journey traversing Peachtree Road.

The route began at The Shepherd Center and ended at Christ the King Church in Buckhead. “Everyone who came along was in absolute disbelief at how, in most cases, the curb cuts along Peachtree Road have not been updated. They didn’t have a clue about the situation,” said James.

Just before Thanksgiving, James was out doing errands as it was getting dark.  About to cross the street, he misjudged the gap between the pavement and curb and ended up spilling out of his wheelchair. A driver passing by stopped and ran to help James. But the Good Samaritan, too, ended up tripping over the gap and landed flat on his face, according to James.

Thankfully, neither was hurt, but, said James: “I never expected anything like that to happen in Atlanta. I was mortified.”

PEDS notified authorities at GDOT about the dangerous curb ramps, especially near the Shepherd Center, the nation’s top rehab hospital for spinal cord and brain injury. “If you wanted to pick the worst place possible for a barrier to people with disabilities,” Sally said, “this would be it.”

In response, GDOT repaired many curb gaps in that area, making it much safer for everyone to get around.

James for one is grateful that PEDS sounded the alarm about these barriers and that they were promptly fixed, at least around the Shepherd Center.

Improper curb cuts, broken or blocked sidewalks and streets without sidewalks are not only “a big aggravation,” says James. They also prevent people with disabilities from getting around unimpeded the way other people take for granted.  “In my case,” says James, “I just want to be able to get to work and run errands safely. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.”