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Bill Capo / Eyewitness News
Email: bcapo@wwltv.com | Twitter: @billcapo

NEWORLEANS - Half a block from City Hall, Sarah Landau encounters the wheelchair version of the Grand Canyon - a driveway that cuts through the sidewalk. There is what looks like a wheelchair ramp, but Sarah sees it also as a big drop.

'Break the chair,' Sarah Landau warned would happen if she tried to cross it. 'If you look at manuals for wheelchairs, they say that you shouldn't take a lip, a threshold, of more than an inch.'

So she has to find another way around. Two blocks down on busy Poydras Street, another driveway. 'Poydras is not a street I would be willing to go out in in a wheelchair.'

Landau said the condition of the city's streets and sidewalks provides big challenges for wheelchair users.

'It rattles things loose in the wheelchair, it breaks parts of the wheelchair,' Landau said 'The first wheelchair I had in this city lasted me four months.'

'We're an old city, we're built on a swamp, subsidence, sidewalk uplift from our ancient oak trees, and the lack of resources to stay on top of needed repairs,' Charlie Tubre of the Advocacy Center said from his wheelchair, describing the basic problems that make wheelchair travel difficult in New Orleans.

So they often take their wheelchairs into the streets, with traffic, which can be especially dangerous.

'You just have to make contact, eye contact, make sure they see you, or they'll turn real fast, and you're dead,' said Tubre.

'It's probably very dangerous,' added Jonah Bascle. 'I mean I've probably nearly gotten hit almost every couple of days.'

WWLTV borrowed a wheelchair from the Easter Seal Society so Bascle could show me just how dangerous it can be. We push down St. Charles Avenue, dodging into spaces between parked cars for safety.

'Just stay as close to the cars as possible, that's what I normally do,' Bascale warned me.

But often Bascale said there's no choice but to share the road with traffic.

'This is the part when you can feel the cars right next to you,'he said.

But the worst was trying to cross a major intersection, with vehicles moving quickly through traffic signals, and turning in many directions.

'So basically, you've just got to wait, and then when it's your time to go, you've just got to go, and hopefully, you make it,' Bascale said as we rushed through the intersection, trying to keep an eye on traffic around us.

'Now I'll tell you that's scary,' was my immediate reaction. 'That's very scary not knowing what's behind you, who is going to be turning, who is going to run a red light.'

But too many sidewalks don't have ramps, while others are in such bad shape they can be hazardous, as Bascale showed me.

'You may kinda slide into the gate, but try it and see,' he warned as I tried to get around a badly broken section of sidewalk.

I smashed into the fence. Without it being there, the chair would have tipped over.

'Yeah, I feel like I shouldn't be laughing. yeah, see, ok, wait, yeah, that's just a big problem,' Bascale said as he couldn't help grinning while watching me pull myself by hand down the fence until the wheelchair cleared the broken section of sidewalk.

And yet Bascale, Landau and Tubre can't even call a cab that will transport their wheelchairs.

'Why a world class city doesn't have one taxi, not one?' questioned Landau. 'They've been promised to us for a year and a half.'

'I'd say within the next few months, we have a plan in place to have cabs on the street, ' responded Malachi Hull, director of the City Taxicab Bureau.

City officials said they plan a fleet of wheelchair accessible taxis on duty around the clock.

'The minimum that I would like to see out there would probably be about 35 cabs,' Hull said.

But at the Advocacy Center, they said the city is working to improve conditions for those in wheelchairs. They see the signs.

'We have more curb cuts in this city now than we have ever had, noted Charlie Tubre.

'We're bringing the areas that don't have curb cuts or ADA ramps now, we're installing those,' said Public Works Director Mark Jernigan.

City officials recently learned they are in compliance with an Americans With Disabilities Act consent decree, and they said that major street projects now require access for wheelchairs. The Advocacy Center cites the number of French Quarter streets with ramps.

'We hoped for five corridors of access, we got eight, thanks to the timing of the Super Bowl,' Tubre pointed out.

'I think we still have a ways to go, but I think we're making great progress,' Jernigan concluded.

But will the city ever be able to afford to do all the needed work?

'We will never have enough money to make every sidewalk and every street corner accessible,' said Tubre.

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