Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Information, Please?

Access to information doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg.

Back when I was younger (we won't say how far back) telephone companies provided a free service for their customers in addition to their regular paid services. It was called "directory assistance" (or just "information") and could be reached by simply dialing "411" and waiting to be connected to a special operator. Yes, a real live person. Did I mention that this happened when I was younger?

Anyway, you'd tell this operator the name of the person, or company, you'd like to reach and she (most operators were female in those days) cheerfully looked up the number for you, and even placed the call right then and there, if you asked her to.

Did I mention that this wonderful service was free?

Well, as we all know, times change. What was once a free service now costs anywhere from a dollar on up, and if you want the operator (now a soul-less computer with zero cheerfulness) to place the call for you, it costs even more. I guess those cheerless computers cost more to feed than a cheerful human operator.

Now, I rarely begrudge any company if it wants to make a buck. Heck, that's part of what made America great. Free Enterprise. But... and this is where I have to draw the proverbial line... a distinction (and sometimes an exception) needs to be made between those who "use" a service, and those who "need" a service.

For the able-bodied, 411 is often a useful service, but rarely an essential one. For certain handicapped individuals, however, having access to directory assistance is not just useful, it is necessary. It's a tool that enables those individuals to lead better lives which are more independent, and more fulfilling.

It can also become quite expensive, if 411 is your primary connection tool with the rest of the world.

Ready for some good news? We don't need to start writing letters and calling senators to try and solve this problem for us. It's already been solved... by good old American Free Enterprise! Yay!

A company called Jingle Networks is making life a whole lot easier, and cheaper, with it's "free directory information" service. Simply dial "1-800-373-3411" (1-800-FREE-411) and a nifty automated voice recognition system asks you for a location (city and state), type of listing (business, government or residential), and name. Once the system has located an entry for the requested number, it reads the information aloud and offers the caller the option of connecting to the party by pressing a single number on his or her telephone keypad. It works equally well on cells as it does land line phones. It even works on SKYPE.

And yes, it's absolutely free to the caller. (NOTE: Cell phone users will incur normal charges associated with cell phone usage, like minutes charges. See your Plan for details.)

So how does Jingle manage to provide this service for free? In a word, advertising. Companies in your calling area have the option of advertising on FREE-411, and in exchange for your free use of their 411 system you may be required to sit through a short (usually 12 second or less) advertisement for goods or services related to your call, if applicable. For example, if you're calling a pet store, and a competing pet store has placed advertising with FREE-411, before your call is connected you'll hear a short advertisement for that store, and be given the option to connect to them instead, if you choose. If no competitor in your area is advertising, then you'll go straight to your party. It's really just that simple.

It works very well, by the way. I tried 10 local area calls and only got 3 advertisements. All of the calls reached my intended party. FREE-411 is in my speed dialer now.

I should also point out that Google has launched a similar service which can be reached by dialing "1-800-466-4411" (1-800-GOOG-411) and that it also works about equally well. So see? We do have options when it comes to information access, and this time, we all get to share in that equally.

Equality. Isn't that what it's really all about?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Handicapped Parking Awareness

Oh no... not this again...

So what would a Handicapped Awareness Blog be without at least one posting on our favorite topic, the use (and mis-use) of Handicapped Parking placards and license plates? When asked, local area handicapped citizens flagged problems with finding adequate reserved parking as a major concern. So let's take a look at that, shall we?

First, I don't believe the violators of the parking laws are being intentionally malicious. When caught and questioned, most violators will admit that they did it "without thinking" or did it thinking that "no one would be hurt" by it. Some were just planning to "dash in and out." Some are ignorant of the law (or plead that case) and misuse the placards thinking that they have a "right to because a family member does." The excuses are many, and varied.

Ignorance is something we can fix, however, through increased communication and education. Other problems may not be quite so easy. Two especially vexing problems are the setting of a bad example by "authority figures" and the lax monitoring of existing laws by those tasked with enforcing them.

Authority Figures: It doesn't help when our very own Mayor, Carty Finkbeiner, was caught back in 2007 illegally parking his city-owned vehicle in a handicapped-only parking zone. He eventually apologized, and paid the fine, but then one day later the story was buried by the even bigger scandal of Carty having left his dog locked inside to "bake in the heat of a sunny August afternoon" while he made his massage therapy appointment. The parking scandal was all but forgotten inside of 24 hours. The "dog story" went on for a week.

Now I love dogs (don't tell my cats) and I have checks to the local Humane Society to prove it, but there's something wrong, in this Blogger's opinion, when a dog story can trump the issue of violating the handicapped parking law.

Maybe we need a cute dog as a mascot?

My point is, how can we expect the average citizen to take handicapped parking permit laws seriously when our own government officials ignore them as well? Admittedly, most city workers are honest and would never break the law, but it only takes one high profile individual to make a lasting bad impression. I believe that such people need to set, for themselves, a higher standard. It's like watching a police car run a red light. Why should I follow a rule if the people who enforce those rules will not?

So how bad is it, really? Several Toledo area citizens have studied the problem of handicapped parking abuse on college campuses. In several cases, investigation revealed that some students were illegally using the parking permits of deceased relatives just to get a slightly better parking space at school. Clearly the problem here is a little more serious, and the violations intentional. Which brings us to...

Law Enforcement: I'm willing to cut the police a little slack here. Most law enforcement departments (Toledo's included) are underfunded, understaffed and overworked. In such an environment parking violations are bound to take a back seat to more serious crimes like moving violations, theft and murder. Still, in the modern age of computers and networked information databases, I do think that more can be done.

One solution might be to require yearly checks to see if owners of handicapped parking permits are still living, or still in need of them. If not, those permits should be flagged, and anyone caught using them should risk some penalty a bit more severe than a $100 fine.

Another solution might be to tighten up the application process. While it might make it a bit more difficult for those with a legitimate need to secure a permit, it will also make it harder for those with little or no real need to acquire a permit when other options may be available.

But whatever else we do, we need to continue the dialogue, even when we think nobody is listening. Education really is the key to making more people aware... especially the able-bodied... that we need those spaces a lot more than they do. We fought for them. We got them. Now we have to defend them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Snowbound in Toledo

It's been an interesting week here in northwestern Ohio.

A few days ago a passing weather system dumped nearly a foot of snow on us, and now today it's snowing again. We're expecting two more inches. Then tomorrow, two more. With drifting some counties could see as much as two feet. By the weekend the temps are expected to dip to zero, or even lower if you count the wind chill factor.

I always do.

Snow is a merriment for some (sledding, and no school) and a misery for others (shoveling, and longer drive times to work) but handicapped or not, snow and ice can be a real bother, or even outright dangerous.

That's what I want to talk about today.

Those of us who use crutches or a cane for extra mobility support need to be especially careful when "the weather outside is frightful." Even a dusting of snow can hide a thin sheet of ice underneath, and a slip and fall on steps or sidewalk can cause severe injuries. That's why I'm always on the lookout for products or services that work harder, or smarter, so I don't have to. One company providing useful assistive products of this type is Thomas Fetterman, Inc.

In addition to a variety of high quality crutches, canes (and the best rubber tips for them I've ever found) they sell one product in particular that I find to be especially useful during the seemingly endless cold and snowy months here in Toledo.

Thomas Fetterman Icetips.

They fit canes or crutches and work on the same principle as studded snow tires. The "pullover" design covers the entire bottom surface of the crutch tip, and slips up and out of the way for indoor use. They come in three sizes to cover almost any size of tip, and require no tools for installation. Icetips cost about $20 for the pair, and no, I don't get a commission for "selling" these. I just think they're great. I also recommend a similar product of theirs called Spiky-Plus which is a stretchy rubber "slip-over" system that adds small cleats to the bottoms of your regular shoes for extra traction. They cost about $39 for the pair.

Together, these two products can help almost anyone stay just a bit safer, and more secure, when ice and snow threaten to further limit our already limited mobility.

And just in case you wheelchair users think I have forgotten about you, think again. Most anyone who has tried to operate an electric wheelchair, power chair or scooter knows that their traction suffers significantly beyond a snow depth of about two inches. Another consideration is salt, a mineral which can be highly corrosive to a motorized chair's moving parts.

So, how does one keep an outdoor ramp clear of ice and snow in the winter if salt is not an option?

One solution may be the Ice-Away Snow and Ice Mat.

Designed to keep your ramp safe and clear of snow and ice all winter long, this heavy duty rubber mat may be just the solution you've been looking for. It plugs into any standard 110v outlet (15-foot cord) and can melt up to two inches of snow and ice per hour. The mat measures 36" x 32" and is made of heavy duty rubber with a treaded surface like an automobile tire. Cost from this supplier is $179 but shop around. You may be able to find it cheaper.

So, here I sit, looking out of my window and dreading the several months of winter that lie ahead. Still, it's not all bad. The new season of "24" is starting (Jack is Back!) and my trusty little space heater is cranking out plenty of the warmth that my poor old body requires for survival. I hope wherever you are, you are keeping warm as well. Perhaps I should have dedicated today's post to thermal blankets...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Journey Begins

Welcome to the very first posting on my very first Blog.

I won't have a lot to say on my maiden voyage, so to speak, but I did want to post something to sort of get the ball rolling. I'm sure that as you sit there reading this you have many questions. Who am I? Why a Blog on handicapped access? Why are you living in Toledo of all places? (Well okay, the last is a cheap shot. Actually, I love Toledo. Go Tony Packos! Go Mud Hens!)

As for who I am, my name is Lawrence and I'm a 54-year-old male living (okay, honesty time) just outside of Toledo with my adoring wife, Lydia, and two not quite as adoring cats named Jupiter and Gypsy. I also keep an aquarium. I'm pretty much just an ordinary guy with ordinary likes and dislikes.

Oh, and I've been handicapped from birth with cerebral palsy.

Which brings us to the second question. Why a Blog on handicapped access? Obviously it's a subject near and dear to my heart... it's a subject I live with every day... and as wonderful as Toledo is, the fact remains that a good portion of it was built long before anyone had even thought of "A. D. A. (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant" building codes.

Toledo is a city rich with history and diverse culture. One could easily write several books on that subject alone, but the relevant thing you need to know is that Toledo is an interesting mixture of both old and new when it comes to architecture. Sometimes a new building sits happily in between two older "historical" ones, and often the issue of accessibility is literally a matter of several feet one way or the other. You quickly learn to call ahead, and ask questions, before venturing into strange territory around here.

So why am I living in Toledo? I moved here in 1997 to be closer to my then fiance Lydia, who quickly learned more about "barriers to access" than she probably ever wanted to know. It's been an exciting and educational ten years (this May) for us, and now as I prepare to return to school later this year (another subject for a future Blog post) I find myself wanting to share what I've learned with others out there who may already be living in Toledo, or considering Toledo for a future relocation.

In closing (for now) I'd like to mention that I'm planning to build a website that I hope to cram with every bit of accessibility information I can find about living in Toledo. Hopefully it will one day become a beacon of light for those, like myself, who have travelled all the way across town, only to be stopped by a four-inch tall step that no one ever thought would be a barrier to anything.

We know better.