Wheels of change: Group seeks to get ETexas churches more wheelchair accessible

Published on Friday, 30 May 2014 22:45 - Written by Rebecca Hoeffner rhoeffner@tylerpaper.com

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Members of the wheelchair-bound support group, Push Pals, want something others may take for granted: a way to get to church.

“If I want to go to church, I have to drive (my motorized wheelchair) on the street,” member Marilyn Rhodes said. “I don’t want to give up God. I like to worship; it lifts my spirits.”

Several of the Push Pals are in motorized wheelchairs, which gives them even more limited access than a small chair would, they said. The public transportation they need is not available on Sundays, and even if it were, some churches facilities are hard for someone in a motorized chair to navigate, the group said.

According to Linda Smith, Disability Specialist at the East Texas Center for Independent Living, churches are only required to have a ramp for access to the inside of the building, and access to the sanctuary.

According to 2002 research from the University of California, an estimated 1.6 million Americans residing outside of institutions use wheelchairs.

“Your life is scheduled out; it’s never spontaneous,” said Sunshine Bell, group member. “You can’t go to every place, because it’s not wheelchair accessible. You can’t visit your relatives because their homes are not wheelchair accessible. I use my doctor visits to socialize.”

Mrs. Bell, 56, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago, and has been wheelchair-bound for 19.

“It was quite a shock,” she said. “It’s not hereditary, but there is a genetic predisposition for it. It’s just not a disease black people get.”

Her daily life looks much different from before she received her diagnosis.

“I have to have assistance getting dressed,” Ms. Bell said. “There are no sidewalks, so I can’t just stroll through the park.”

The public transportation costs $1.50 per ride. But it adds up, Carolyne said, especially with someone on a limited income like the members of Push Pals.

For another member, Lois Brooks, things that go unnoticed by the general public are a problem for her.

“The hardest thing for me is opening doors that don’t have a motorized handicap button. I have to knock and wait for someone to open it.”

Carolyne Rhodes founded Push Pals in March.

“I was so tired of staying at home and not having people to talk to with the same needs,” she said. “We need to have a voice.”