Brattleboro's Inclusion Center reaches out to local businesses

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BRATTLEBORO — Hoping to make establishments around Windham County more accessible and user friendly for those with disabilities, the Inclusion Center is reaching out to stores with recommendations.

"We have been talking for ages about what it's like for people with disabilities to shop and how difficult it is," said Julie Tamler, director of the Inclusion Center, which hosts activities for disabled members of the community and other local residents. "Generally, stores don't think about our needs."

So far, a group including Tamler and Brattleboro resident Gail Kennedy-Haines has approached the Brattleboro Food Co-op and has plans to talk with Hannaford officials. That's not the end of their efforts though.

Tamler said she wants to send letters to all the stores in the county. She came out of the visit with the co-op feeling positive about the efforts moving forward.

"We talked about the difficulties of maneuvering your way through the aisles, through various areas, and what the challenges are," said Kennedy-Haines, who has a walking disability among other disabilities. "The challenges are huge for people with disabilities."

Starting at home, someone who uses a wheelchair or walker needs to get the equipment into their vehicle and do all that in reverse order with bags in tow on their way home. They'll need to find a handicap parking space, which Kennedy-Haines said there often aren't enough of.

Sometimes, she will use an electric scooter offered at different stores. Items can be difficult to reach, especially if they're located in the freezers.

Asking for help getting products can be demeaning, said Kennedy-Haines, describing how the scooter can inadvertently make for an inconvenient shopping experience .

"It's got a basket that's an inefficient size for someone who's shopping for a family and it's hard to get around the aisles without bumping into somebody," she said. "When I'm in one of these things, I don't know my dimensions. I don't know how far I extend. They don't turn on a dime and it's difficult to control the speed if you've got anything wrong with your hands."

The next step is paying. The register lanes can be too narrow and unloading items from the basket can present difficulties.

"Then I'm keeping everyone waiting, snorting with rage, because I'm so slow," Kennedy-Haines said. "It would be helpful if there were just one wider lane in one of the check-out registers that was easily accessible. Some of the grocery stores have the disabled sign. But if you're in line, it's hard to see."

Another suggestion involves human assistance: volunteers, who might be trying to get back in the workforce, could walk through stores with a disabled shopper. Having someone offer help is "much more empowering for an individual to say yes or no to rather than having to ask," Kennedy-Haines said.

"There's so much about being disabled where you're cast aside as being different and less than," she said. "Any time we can be given options and be allowed to choose for ourselves is very, very important. With self esteem comes a lot of other extra benefits."

Sensory issues also can create a negative shopping experience, Tamler said, comparing stores to obstacle courses where impatient customers can make stressful situations even worse. She hopes stores might implement "slow lanes" where people can take their time checking out during less busy days and hours.

Already in action

Small squares of blue paper have been posted on windows in willing downtown Brattleboro shops. Printed on them is the handicap symbol with the words "Knock for Assistance," which indicates stores will open the door if someone knocks. The gesture of having the signage is seen as welcoming by participants of the Inclusion Center. About 30 to 40 people meet weekly for activities and discussions, according to Tamler.

The difficulties in navigating parts of downtown Brattleboro in a wheelchair were documented by the Inclusion Center in a video that can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=AY4LMMDpciA.

Another project involves improving accessibility at the winter and summer farmers markets in town.

"I met with members of the Inclusion Center last season to discuss improvements we could make to the site to make it more accessible," said Meghan Houlihan, manager of the summer market. "Our immediate and longer-term plans include adding accessible parking spaces, grading a bump near the market entrance, which will make it easier for wheelchair vans to park in the accessible parking area, and resurfacing the circle in the vendor area to make it easier for wheelchairs to navigate the grounds."

Sherry Maher, manager of the winter farmers market held at the River Garden, said issues around parking and accessibility are definitely on her group's radar.

"I certainly recognize the challenge of access for anyone that has any kind of mobility challenges when there's a busy day at the winter farmers market," she said, noting that the space can be a bit crowded and the aisles too narrow. "We know some customers have chosen to shop elsewhere because of that uncomfortable situation they find at the market."

Tamler said she wants to follow up on all the issues the group has raised.

"While ideals are great, it's about teaching compassion and respect for people — especially now with the political climate the way it is," she added. "I think that's the most important thing the Inclusion Center can do."

Brattleboro Food Co-op General Manager Sabine Rhyne said her team was in the process of responding to the Inclusion Center's recommendations.

"We're actually going through a whole list of ideas and trying to figure out what we can accommodate immediately and what will take more time," Rhyne told the Reformer.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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