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Walk a Mile challenges Helenans to walk in the shoes of the mobility-impaired

Independent Record - 9/24/2018

Sept. 23--The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed fewer than 30 years ago. And while accessibility is now legally enshrined, it can still be difficult to find.

As part of the Walk a Mile disability awareness campaign, the Helena-based Montana Independent Living Project is challenging people to walk in the shoes of the mobility-impaired.

Joel Peden, advocacy coordinator for MILP, said participants are asked to take the normal path from their car to their office while sitting in a wheelchair or walking on crutches. The public is welcome to borrow wheelchairs and crutches from Helena's office of community development, which can be reached at 447-8490.

"It's about seeing how you get around in there," Peden said.

As someone who uses a wheelchair, Peden said that what might not be an obstacle for a walker could be one for those bound to a wheelchair.

"The big potted plant in front of the door, the garbage can in front of the elevator buttons, or the bush in front of the building that's grown three-quarters of the way across a sidewalk, which is easy for someone walking to get by, but in a wheelchair it makes it very difficult," Peden said.

Turing a wheelchair in a tight space can also be difficult, he said.

"I'm a horrible backer-upper," Peden said with a laugh. "It's a demolition derby."

Peden said Walk a Mile is a "community awareness program" that originated with Helena City Commissioner Ed Noonan. It aims to help people understand how their work spaces and businesses might make it hard for people living with disabilities to get around.

"The city's going to participate with the management team," Peden said, to help encourage business owners and property managers to take a look at their buildings with fresh eyes.

Commissioner Noonan said he came up with the idea after he had ankle-fusion surgery in the past year and realized how difficult it could be to get around.

"Even with ADA assistance, people are not paying attention," Noonan said.

Noonan said the program is designed for people to "become more aware about what it would be like for someone to need this kind of help."

"It's not playing at being disabled," Noonan said. "It's to help people open up their eyes."

And he plans to give the program another go-round in the wintertime, when ice and snow make it even harder for the mobility-impaired.

Peden said that making a workspace or business more accessible doesn't always mean big, expensive improvements. It might just require moving the potted plant, shifting the garbage can or trimming the hedges.

"The goal is not to play gotcha," Peden continued. "It's about education and raising awareness."

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