July 25, 2005 St. John gets only "so-so" marks for accessibility, several people currently evaluating the island said Monday. They are on St. John as part of the Building a Destination for All 2005 symposium.
"There are little pockets of places [of accessibility]. It's a matter of connecting the dots," Kat Darula of the Rhode Island-based Multi, Design for People said Monday.
Her company specializes in making places accessible to disabled people.
Darula, partner Rosanne Ramos and their team, as well as three disabled people and their caregivers, are spending the week doing what typical tourists do going to the beach, snorkeling the island's clear waters, having dinner out, and enjoying the sights.
However, all three of the disabled persons, as well as a fourth scheduled to arrive Wednesday, use wheelchairs to get around. And they'll have a chance try out a several items that make things like beach access easier.
Tom Muxie, 44, of Peabody, Mass., had a typical tourist reaction.
"I've never seen anything like this," he said, sitting aboard a boat anchored in Great Maho Bay.
Muxie, Ileana Rodriquez, 20, and Herman Sanchez, 14, both of Miami, rounded out the list of participants headed out for a snorkel. Eric Lipp, director of Open Doors Organization of Chicago, is the fourth participant.
Darula said that the four all have varying degrees of mobility and reasons why they need a wheelchair.
Rodriquez said she especially liked being in the water, but noted that island buildings need elevators to improve accessibility.
Sanchez said he was up for any activity on the schedule.
Darula said that the four disabled tourists were chosen because they already had water sports skills, were physically fit and had traveled previously. They arrived Sunday.
"They're very independent," she said.
She said her team picked Maho Bay to start evaluating water sports activities because it was fairly flat and the road was close to the water. However, the team had to bring along portable ramps to move the wheelchairs from the road to the beach. She said she found no portable ramps in all of St. John, so she had a supplier donate them. Darula said the team will leave them behind for use on St. John.
Multi, Design for People created four accessible units at Concordia Eco-Tents. Darula said the participants are staying in those particular tents, with the staff in the others.
She said that the St. John symposium came about because Maho Bay Camps owner Stanley Selengut helped to design the eco-tents to be accessible for disabled patrons.
Information provided by Darula indicates that there are 54 million disabled Americans with a discretionary income of $175 billion. The Travel Industry Association of America claims that disabled travelers take 31.7 million trips a year and spend $13.6 billion annually.
The symposium, which runs daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Maho Bay Camps, wraps up Friday with a daylong panel discussion. It includes remarks by numerous government officials as well as a critique of the island's accessibility by the participants. The public is invited to attend.
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