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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Kudos and quandaries
Branch WEB
Roger G. Branch Sr.

Kudos and "atta boys" to the YMCA for leasing the old Sallie Zetterower Elementary School to be used for many good programs, beginning with an exercise facility open to seniors and families. I suspect that there is plenty of good, unused exercise equipment that people would gladly donate if someone will come up with a plan to make it happen.

Another "atta boy" to Tractor Supply, where I buy bird feed for my slightly expensive but satisfying hobby. Noting my cane, the cashier always asks if I need help with the feed bags that seem to be getting heavier. Remembering how I handled 200 pounds of fertilizer as a teenager on the farm, one part of me wants to scoff at the notion that I cannot now toss around 40-pound bags of sunflower seed and 50-pound bags of mixed seed. But reality has begun to set in. At best, I can drag - not toss - these things. When my slender but deceptively strong granddaughter, Julia, is along, she says something diplomatic like, "Move, Granddaddy, and let me handle that." Otherwise, I allow the cashier to call in some muscle. The last time there, she paged up someone to pick up the bags from back in the store and take them to the car for me. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Sometimes devising accommodations for people with disabilities is not that simple. Downtown areas, older buildings and sports venues can pose serious challenges. Downtown Statesboro is a clear example, but most towns and cities have similar issues. The courthouse is Statesboro's iconic landmark and is still in regular use. It has a ramp for wheelchairs and walkers but little handicapped parking. In fact, little convenient parking period. That which is available is on-street parking, which can be tough for folks using wheelchairs or walkers. When court is in session in the new building across the street, finding parking and getting into the courthouse is difficult for the healthy and worse for the handicapped. County leaders are not lax or evil; there just are not easy solutions.

Similar problems beset city government. The also iconic old hotel, which is home to most city offices, also has limited convenient parking, on-street parking. Access ramps are well done, but parking spaces for the handicapped are few. There is more parking in the back but no handicap friendly entrance into the building or easy path around to the front.

One-hundred-year-old buildings were not designed for disabled people. When folks had strokes, heart attacks or serious injuries, they usually died. Those who did not were expected to accept their disabilities and stay at home. A few stubborn souls kept on keeping on with crutches, wooden legs, canes and determination. Other than a helpful arm or shoulder from kin or friend, they got no special consideration. When the law or softer hearts declared that people must be treated better, the buildings and streets around them had inaccessibility carved in brick, stone, concrete and asphalt. Again, the same is true in towns and cities everywhere.

Some of these conditions affect Statesboro's efforts to reinvent its downtown, which I support. When we moved here 46 years ago, the mall had not happened. The town had not been bypassed, and downtown was vibrant. Government and some professional activities have kept the core area busy - even crowded - although it gets quiet quickly when those offices close for the day.

Issue No. 1: Parking is a problem. Malls and edge-of-town superstores have conditioned people to expect convenient parking. Parking two or three blocks away from a retail store or restaurant downtown has become unthinkably distant. And it is too far for someone on a walker. One solution is a parking garage, for which there is plenty of vacant space or vacant buildings that could be removed. There are big issues: cost, security, shuttle service between parking and wherever. But scarcity of usable parking is becoming a shackle on revitalization and participation by the handicapped, old or other, in the life of the city.

Georgia Southern University also has to struggle with old buildings and accessibility. Pittman, Deal and Cone, century-old icons at the head of Sweetheart Circle, are Greek revival with columns, high porches and lots of steps. The teenage students of First District A&M could run up and down those steps with only a rare fall. Since none of them had automobiles, parking was not a problem. But GSU is not A&M.

Newer buildings are designed for accessibility, and solutions have been found for others, but 19th century Greek revival architecture does not lend itself to solutions. I have wanted to welcome President Hebert and chat about my Cajun kin since he first arrived, but his office is in the building with the tallest steps, and I do not trust that outside lift. Of course, every older university in the South has similar architecture.

It is hard to find redeeming qualities about any of the GSU athletic venues. Hanner has parking for the handicapped, but it gets engulfed and infringed upon during big events, and getting around on canes and walkers is like swimming the Ogeechee in full flood. My last visit there was for the graduation of my granddaughter, one of three such ceremonies that had been scheduled there with little break between them. There have been more orderly riots. Someone found a seat for me. In spite of my deep love for my university, I would never go there again, but I have one more granddaughter who will graduate soon, with honors, as did her father and grandmother.

Football stadia are rarely designed to accommodate the aged and otherwise handicapped unless such people can afford to buy boxes with elevators, air conditioning and other good stuff. Of Paulson, I can only say that it is not nearly as torturous as Sanford and the whole experience of attending a game there. (Remember that I am a three-time alumnus of the University of Georgia.) The last time I went to see the Bulldogs play, we parked at a spot barely in the same zip code as the stadium, sat in the endzone with the hot, westering sun in our faces and had to stop to rest several times before we got back to the parking place.

Still, Paulson has limited handicap parking, and it is not close. The golf carts that are provided to help the handicapped are too few and become hopelessly snarled in post-game traffic. I tried parking in one of the lots served by the buses. However, the buses were not designed for gimps like me, and the post-game wait - with no place to sit or rest until the next bus arrived - took a long time.

It could be argued that it is just impossible to design sports arenas seating many thousands of people so that the old and otherwise handicapped can be accommodated. Actually, Appalachian State University's Kid Brewer Stadium does a good job. When my late Annette and I went with Arthur and Christine Sparks, we were able to park near the stadium. The aisles are wide and equipped with sturdy handrails down the center. Obviously, it cost App State seats and dollars to do that, but they did.

So, accessibility by design is possible. Some of the convenient parking prized by heavy contributors could be set aside for handicapped fans. It is possible to equip buses to be handicap accessible for riders who choose more distant parking lots. All of this costs money, but the law says that every reasonable effort must be made to provide adequate accommodation for the handicapped. This includes governmental units, schools and universities. However, there is another reason to do more than is now being done. Erk Russell's GATA slogan is forever being quoted. While he was still living and influencing the world around him, he had another that was more important to him: "Do right!"

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.



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