After Roberta Rosenberg fell on a cruise ship in the Panama Canal six years ago, she flew home and found herself in a wheelchair for six months, then used a walker and cane for another six.
She set up shop in a home office and gave friends the key to her house to make visits easier.
As Rosenberg tells it, she quickly realized how little attention she had paid to the challenges faced by people with limited mobility.
She recalls deciding to visit a friend in Port Washington, quite sure there were no steps leading to the door. When she arrived, she found three steps that had been all but invisible to her.
“I never thought about it,” said Rosenberg, 72, of Syosset. “I was sure there were no steps. Here I was in a wheelchair. That was my first wake-up. How come I didn’t notice it?”
Her husband and friend’s husband lifted her over the steps, but Rosenberg’s awakening continued long after she left her wheelchair.
When her father found himself in a wheelchair in 2013, she faced problems taking him to restaurants, stores and other venues and decided to do something about it. Coupled with her earlier experience of being in a wheelchair, her father’s mobility challenges gave her the idea to develop a website that could help.
AN IDEA IS BORN
Most venues' websites, she found, didn’t always indicate whether places were accessible, and her calls often yielded incorrect information. Even if sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor indicated whether places were accessible, they weren’t devoted to accessibility.
And although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 imposes a wide range of standards for accessibility, it’s possible to go beyond those.
So in 2014, Rosenberg and her friend Fran Bogal, who lived in Syosset at the time, created Destination: Accessible. The website, at destinationaccessible.com, has detailed information about handicapped accessibility primarily on Long Island and in the metropolitan area — all of it based on their firsthand research.
“She said, ‘What do you think about going to places and seeing how accessible they are?' ” said Bogal, who in 2017 moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, after they had visited about 200 sites. “You can go to a website. They’ll tell you certain things, but they won’t go into detail. We decided we would go to places and write things to help people.”
The website details visits to more than 450 venues, providing in-depth information about access at museums, theaters, parks, restaurants, kid-friendly venues, popular places (such as bowling alleys) and more.
“It’s very important for people to know true accessibility,” said Mark Rosenberg, Roberta’s husband, who helps collect information. “She became passionate about it and won’t let go.”
Destination: Accessible focuses on physical mobility challenges, Rosenberg said, to make the most of limited resources.
“There’s a whole huge segment besides wheelchair users who are disabled. People who use a cane, walker or wheelchair, people who are unsteady on their feet,” she said. “Everybody’s needs are not the same.”
Destination: Accessible doesn’t seek to praise, criticize or become the Michelin of mobility, but to inform beyond basic access.
“We are not a review site like Yelp or TripAdvisor,” Rosenberg said. “We don’t give stars to places based on how good or bad they are.”
Getting out the word
Such venues as Maple Family Centers bowling alleys, built without steps down to lanes and offering equipment for wheelchair bowlers, see the site as getting out the word about services.
“Destination: Accessible does a thorough site visit,” said Teresa McCarthy, a director of community outreach for Rockville Centre-based Maple Family Centers, which owns five bowling alleys, including three on Long Island. “It’s another avenue to reach people.”
Sandy Wasserman, a Plainview resident who needed a walker for a few months several years ago after she fell, has used the site for herself and her mother-in-law, who needed a cane, walker, then a wheelchair.
“The site is helpful,” Wasserman said. “When a person sees this website, they realize how they can make life more enjoyable for someone with a disability.”
While many places offer handicapped access, some are grandfathered, meaning they are not required to comply with the ADA. One such place, a restaurant near Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, advises handicapped diners to use restrooms next door.
“I’m not saying don’t go to that restaurant. I’m saying you should simply know before you go there," Rosenberg said.
Even parks can be better or ill-suited to slow walkers, users of canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Caumsett State Historic Park, for instance, is beautiful but has long stretches without benches, according to Destination: Accessible.
Sunken Meadow State Park, on the other hand, has a handicapped-accessible boardwalk, numerous benches, accessible restrooms and a new, handicapped-accessible playground.
“Children with disabilities can play on an equal playing field with anybody else,” Rosenberg said. “The equipment is designed differently.”
Telephone calls help those with mobility challenges find out about access, Rosenberg said, but it’s easy to get incorrect information, as when she and her husband took her father to Quebec. Three steps turned access into an adventure.
“They think they’re accessible,” Mark Rosenberg said. “But when you roll up in a wheelchair, there are obstacles.”
Places with handicapped-accessible bathrooms may have bars in stalls, but other issues arise. “You get there and the doorway isn’t wide enough,” she said. “You can’t get a wheelchair in there.”
Separate wheelchair-accessible bathrooms provide a big benefit, although many places don’t offer that amenity.
Rosenberg said her journey into advocacy can be traced to when her mother found herself in a wheelchair from 2002 until she died in 2005.
“We went to a lot of places,” Rosenberg said. “I noticed and sent letters to some stores about how bad the accommodations were for wheelchairs.”
Wheelchairs sometimes couldn’t fit between clothing racks. Handicapped-accessible spaces sometimes were farther from the front door than one might like.
After her own and her father’s stints in wheelchairs, Rosenberg and Bogal — with a lot of help from their oldest sons — created the website as a window into details regarding the world for those with mobility challenges.
“We spent a year deciding what we wanted to put on the website, who the website would be for, how we wanted it to look,” Rosenberg said.
'It's a good name'
The pair launched the website at the end 2014 and this April obtained nonprofit status.
“It’s a good name, but I get phone calls from people who think we’re a travel agency,” Rosenberg said. “Recently, I had a group of 20 people brainstorming to come up with a better name. Nobody could.”
She visits venues with a checklist and adds a few paragraphs “like a blog about my experience,” often collecting data when she and her husband dine out.
Said Mark, “I help her if we go someplace. I check the men’s room. She checks the ladies’ room.”
The site lists the number and locations of handicapped parking spaces, parking lot surfaces, numbers of steps, locations of handicapped entrances, ease in moving around, elevators, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, whether aisles are wide and other information.
“There’s nothing on that site that has not been personally seen. The date on it was what we found then,” Rosenberg said. “Some places have been updated because I went back.”
She said she’s found features that provide greater access than one might expect. “The Nassau Coliseum surprised me,” she said. “Besides wheelchair-accessible seating, the back row in every section doesn’t require a step.”
Rosenberg talks to organizations whose members face mobility challenges associated with Parkinson’s disease, head injuries and cerebral palsy.
She also speaks to senior-citizen groups, libraries and other organizations that could benefit from her site.
“We’re going to be putting it on our website and letting people know,” Carol Waldman, executive director of the Glen Cove Senior Center, said about providing a link to Destination: Accessible. “I’ll encourage other senior centers and providers to take advantage of it. It’s gift to the senior community.”
Rosenberg said she would love other people to evaluate places for her site, for venues to post detailed information on their own websites about access, and to be able to expand her site to cover other regions. She said grants and donations could help her expand her services.
“You could be in a wheelchair tomorrow,” Rosenberg says of the accident that put her in a wheelchair for a time. “We were on a cruise on vacation. I didn’t envision that I would be disabled the next day.
“I feel this is important for a lot of people,” she says. "This could be any of us at any moment.”