December 4, 2021

For some, mobility issues deter independence in Cortland County

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

Crystal Brehm shows where two city cans block her access to a crosswalk pole Wednesday afternoon on Main Street outside of Brix Pubaria in Cortland. In addition to cracked and uneven sidewalks, Brehm spoke on many issues that cause mobility concerns in the county.

Crystal Brehm navigated her wheelchair Wednesday down to the coroner of Main and Court streets just outside of Brix Pubaria in Cortland. Had she wanted to cross safely, she would’ve needed her fiance’s help.

City trash cans blocked access to the buttons to signal the crosswalk — at least for a person in a wheelchair.

Brehm said it’s not just the cans blocking the crosswalk button, it’s cracks and potholes in sidewalks, no sidewalks at all, hidden crosswalks signs, not enough time to cross the street and more that limit her independence.

“If you don’t live with someone or know someone intimately who has a disability, you don’t think about these things,” said Brehm, who has used a wheelchair most of her life because of cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.

But Seven Valleys Health Coalition and Access to Independence continue to stress the importance of increasing mobility for people with disabilities and have been working on implementing those changes in the county’s updated transportation plan.

Because she can’t get around as easily as she would like, Brehm said she relies more on her fiancé, Matthew Norton, who in many instances must become her eyes and hands.

Norton pulled up a picture on his cellphone — the first photo showed the crosswalk sign in front of Bru 64, the white hand signaling that someone could proceed just barely noticeable from behind the tree nearby. The next photo showed what it was like to see it from Brehm’s point of view — she couldn’t see the crosswalk sign at all.

“Sometimes, it feels like he’s yelling at me but it’s just because he’s trying to keep me safe,” she said, noting the instances he has needed to tell her to stop before trying to cross a street because it wasn’t safe to go — but she couldn’t see that.

“The biggest issue is crosswalks,” Norton said.

Norton pulled up another photo, this time showing snow piled against a crosswalk pole, making it impossible for Brehm to push the button.

The potholes and cracks are issues, too.

Brehm said she feels every little bump as she makes her way down sidewalks. She’s seen people get stuck, some fall.

“Some of these cracks could potentially eat someone in a wheelchair for a lack of a better word,” she said.

Then there’s the difficulty of getting across the street before the light changes, she said.

“A lot of times they don’t last long enough,” she said. In some instances she hasn’t made it all the way onto a sidewalk before cars move into the intersection.

Cortland City Public Works Superintendent Chris Bistocchi said he would have a crew member look at the cans in front of Brix and see if the situation could be alleviated.

He also said that Fisher Associates, which was hired to redesign Main Street as part of the Downtown Revitalization grant, is looking to increase accessibility and making sure the city complies with ADA standards.

Mayor Brian Tobin said around 4:30 p.m. that the cans had been moved and also said the city can often help resolve an issue if officials know what the issue is.

Tobin said once Fisher Associates has finished its designs, perhaps next month, they will be made available to the public for comment.

Brehm said what could change all of this is if people asked people with disabilities to be involved with designing sidewalks or roads.

“They definitely need to use the ADA community to realize what’s legal and what’s actually helpful are two different things,” she said.

Aaron Baier, the director of Access to Independence, said his organization and Seven Valleys Health Coalition have talked over the years about ways to improve accessibility, including adding sidewalks in areas that lack them, or improving the existing sidewalks.

“When you get out more into residential areas, the quality of the sidewalks deteriorates,” he said.

Audible crosswalk signs are another good addition, he said, noting the Groton Avenue, Main Street, Clinton Avenue area is a pretty frequented area that doesn’t have audible crosswalks at every intersection.

For Baier who is blind, crossing in that area is difficult, he said.

“We have historically always participated in meetings that involve street redesign — to ensure the groups we advocate for, and in particular, the needs of individuals with disabilities are represented,” said Catherine Wilde, Seven Valleys mobility manager. “From the redesign and widening of Route 281, to the current work on Clinton Avenue to the plans for a two-way Main Street, any time there are opportunities for us to be present and advocate for the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians and especially those who are mobility-challenged, SVHC has been there to ask for those perspectives to be remembered in the planning process.”

Wilde said the county’s updated transportation plan will include a focus on improving sidewalks after survey respondents and focus group participants expressed concerns about sidewalks across the county.

“We hope the Legislature will adopt the new plan in February and all county municipalities can utilize it for future planning needs for years to come,” she said.