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Disabled for a day

A wheelchair-bound Cornelius teen shows a Metro councilor what it's like to navigate city's uneven streets and sidewalks
by: Courtesy of Wendy Armstrong,

For Consuelo Arauza, the sorry state of Cornelius' sidewalks and intersections aren't a dusty public policy issue - they're a vital safety concern.

That's because Arauza's 14-year-old son, Juan, whose cerebral palsy forces him to get around in a wheelchair, has to navigate the city's patchwork of gravel ditches and poorly aligned sidewalks daily.

Juan is used to the routine by now. He pops his wheels over the craggy pavement with elation and throws his hands in the air with each successful rally. All the while Arauza looks on with a wistfulness mixed with worry, as if to say: he makes it look easier than it is.

On Friday, Metro Councilor Robert Liberty found out just how difficult it is to travel through Cornelius in a wheelchair as he toured the city with Juan, Arauza and city officials to experience first-hand the challenges faced by those with disabilities every day.

After 40 minutes of travel around town - visiting Cornelius Elementary School, city hall, the Virginia Garcia Clinic and Grande Foods - Liberty was full of ideas and a little bit humbled.

'You definitely have some tricks for me to come back and learn,' he said to Juan, who flashed a grin.

Arauza invited Liberty - and the rest of Metro Council - to visit Cornelius and experience the streets in a wheelchair when she testified last month in favor of a $3.2 million federal cash infusion for sidewalk improvements along Baseline between 10th and 19th streets.

Metro, the regional government, approved the allocation and Liberty accepted Arauza's invitation on the spot.

For Arauza, that was more exciting than the prospect of new sidewalks.

'I was even more excited when he got up and told me that he'd come and take the tour,' Arauza said.

Arauza launched her sidewalk-repair campaign after she got involved in a citizen committee, Committee for a Vision for an Accessible Community, which chose the lack of sidewalks as its first action item.

The committee was formed in 2006 and funded by Oregon Health and Science University as part of its Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities program.

Program coordinators - Dr. Claudia Vargas from OHSU and Dr. Phillip Cooper, who works at OHSU and Portland State University - both said Friday that community activism was paramount in improving care for people with disabilities.

Cooper said that OHSU began working in Cornelius in an effort to educate health-care professionals about how to directly impact the communities they work in.

'If health care for children and families is going to improve, then they need to work with the people who need care and the people who make decisions,' Cooper said.

Cornelius City Manager Dave Waffle, who has met with the committee since its inception, was grateful for Arauza's help in securing the $3.2 million grant in Cornelius.

'Mrs. Arauza had, I think, a very important role at the Metro funding process,' Waffle said.

The most treacherous crossing came as Juan and Liberty attempted to navigate Adair Street. Even with the help of a crossing signal, the two barely made it to the other side before cars began whizzing past them again.

'Here you're always wondering - are they going to stop?' Cooper said.

At other intersections, waiting at the curb didn't cause traffic to stop at all, and Waffle had to waive cars down to create a safe path for Liberty and Juan.

Waffle said that the Oregon Department of Transportation has been opposed to more crossing signals along Adair and Baseline because of the high volume of traffic that goes through the city each day.

Liberty said ODOT's reticence comes out of a shift in how communities view major arterial roads as development makes them part of a main street that requires more pedestrian crossings. The balancing act is a tricky one, but Liberty said the region needs to work toward accessibility.

'Anything we do for Juan is good for the region,' Liberty said.

For Vargas, difficulty crossing the street is just one of many accessibility problems.

'The grant was given, but it's not going to fix everything,' she said. 'Some of the parks have sidewalks around them but no sidewalks through them, so children with disabilities have to stay at the edge while their friends play.'