Gaining access: Holy City proves challenging for those with disabilities

Alex Jackson says White Point Gardens at the Battery limits his mobility because the park as few access points for people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities.

When you meet West Ashley native Alex Jackson, the first thing you notice is his smile dotted by dimples and a twinkle in his eyes.

The 26-year-old hopes one day to work in television news. He’s active in his church, the Boy Scouts and many other local groups. An avid photographer, he loves to watch the boats pass by at Brittlebank Park or enjoy the sights at Hampton Park. But don’t ask him to head over to White Point Garden. He won’t. Because, unfortunately, it’s not accessible for his power wheelchair.

The year he was born, a drunk driver collided with his mother’s car while she was on the way back to West Ashley from Augusta.

Dr. Sherron Jackson brought her 9-month-old son to visit family. Alex was thrown from the car and his mother badly injured. The accident left Alex paralyzed from the chest down.

The city of Charleston has plans under way to help improve accessibility, but those with disabilities have faced numerous challenges.

Uneven sidewalks, awkwardly placed ramps and curbs, inaccessible restrooms and more are the everyday obstacles that people with disabilities deal with, Alex Jackson says.

Janet Schumacher, Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator for the city of Charleston, says that several locations have already been improved, including along King Street and the South Carolina Aquarium.

Jackson now works in public affairs at SPAWAR and spends the rest of his time helping people understand the plight of people with disabilities.

Blogging weekly in his Tuesday Talk With Alex, he has a positive outlook on his world and educates able-bodied people that disability doesn’t mean inability.

“In a good way, I was meant to be in a power chair and educate people on living with a disability. Each person’s severities are going to be different than my circumstances, I think it sheds light that disabilities can happen to anyone,” he says.

But even with a positive attitude, it’s hard for him to not overlook all the accessibility issues plaguing the Lowcountry.

“Transportation is a big one for me. ... Bus stops aren’t accessible, but buses are. Our airport doesn’t have accessible vehicles, so it’s hard to travel.”

Jackson says he’s lucky to be able to drive a van specially equipped with hand controls and a ramp, but he still struggles in disabled parking spaces.

Many don’t give his ramp room to expand, he says, and often the spots are far away from the destination, so he has to go into traffic to access a sidewalk ramp.

Jackson has dreams of creating his own taxi service for those with disabilities, but admits that the insurance would be expensive.

There are other stumbling blocks such as gas stations and grocery stores, as well.

“There are propane tanks and ice chests that impede the access for wheelchair users. And at grocery stores, many people put the shopping carts in the disabled parking spots,” Jackson says.

That scenario is all too familiar to Brenda Parent, 50, of Mount Pleasant who advocates for those with disabilities.

“As I was trying to get out at a retail store, a woman left her shopping cart in the way of my ramp. I opened my window and said, ‘You can’t leave your cart there, I won’t be able to get out of my van.’ She looked at me and pointed at the store saying ‘That’s their job.’ ”

Paralyzed after a car accident at age 22, Parent has a 25-year-old son and is an accessibility consultant in the Lowcountry. She assisted with the plans for the Aquarium and other venues.

“It’s not the wheelchair that gets in the way, it’s the lack of accessibility,” she says.

Public restrooms are a nightmare for those in wheelchairs, Parent says. They’re often too small to maneuver and the sink and paper towel dispensers are too high to reach, she says. “I’ve seen one almost-perfect restroom in my time.”

Parent’s other place of major concern? Restaurants.

“If you go to a restaurant in a wheelchair, there are booths and tables. When a big party comes in, they put the tables together and I’m left waiting while others come right in, sit down and eat. There are places I quit going to for that reason.”

Hollywood resident and statistical analyst Scott Moore, 52, saw his experience at a restaurant make national restaurant review sites.

Diagnosed with spinal cancer at 27, the father of two uses a Segway personal transporter to get around. Unfortunately, one local restaurateur didn’t deem his transportation as appropriate.

Several of the patrons who witnessed the incident hurriedly went online to tell the story.

Moore doesn’t show much emotion about the situation. “Riding the Segway around, people make comments and are rude. And then you’re a pariah in a wheelchair.” He alternately uses a Segway, wheelchair and arm crutches to get around.

Moore’s main concern is the route to anywhere he travels. As an outdoor access specialist, he travels to parks and often chronicles his visit with a video camera. He praises Ravenel’s Caw Caw Interpretive Center and Charles Towne Landing as places with the most accessibility.

“It’s all about slope, surface, obstacles and width,” he says in regard to the route. “If your route is incorrect, you don’t have to even worry about bathrooms; you can’t get there.”

Since moving to the Lowcountry in 2005 with wife Patricia, he’s visited many places and almost all of them have their accessibility problems. But there’s one place he hasn’t been able to visit: The Battery.

“The city is very difficult but The Battery is impossible.”

Ryan Nelson is a local freelance writer. Contact her at ryan@nelwater.com or on Twitter @ryan_nelsonsc.