Yesterday having been an unaccountably bad day for J (which accounts in part for its being a bad day for me), so that he asked me to cancel his "strength gym" workout and stayed in bed all day, when he felt better today I felt impelled to get him up and out.
For one thing, I had seen when our friend Margie was here that he was capable of being up for hours and hours, and it was really good for him. He's suffering from boredom and in need of challenge and stimulation. Given those, he becomes sharp as a tack in observation, reasoning, and wit, despite the fact that he can't remember what city he's in or what year it is.
For another thing, today was probably the most flawless day of the year: cool, clear and sunny, with everything at its most succulent, nubile, but still delicate peak of bloom. I wanted J to see dogwoods and magnolias. Maybe he'd grudgingly begin to accept that yes, Virginia, there is a North Carolina and he's in it.
I decided to take him to Duke Gardens. People have been raving to us about the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on the Duke University campus in Durham ever since we got here. We hadn't even seen the Duke campus, just made a beeline in and out of desolate downtown Durham (a broken-streeted ghost town on the brink of resurrection) on the way to the dojo. I called up and asked specifically if the gardens, or part of them, were wheelchair accessible. Oh yes, I was assured. The paths were not paved (I pricked up my ears at that), but a lot of them were "tightly packed" soil and "good for pushing." I got driving directions.
The Duke campus is awesome, roads winding through endless acres of old woods dotted with Colonial-era houses and a Gothic-style chapel. UNC is pretty, elegant and shady, but much smaller, I have the impression. Duke's tobacco-founded landholdings are vast. In that respect, at least, it's got to be one of the richest colleges in the nation. As a place to go to school, it's like its own paradisal little planet.
We found the gardens, parked and went into the Doris Duke Center to get a map. You can see it here. The place is 55 acres. It includes a huge Japanese garden. Clearly, we were only going to be able to see a tiny bit of it. I was again assured that the gardens were quite accessible. Paths that were wheelchair-friendly, about a third of them, were marked with little circles (which you can't see online). More than enough for our purposes.
We hit our first snag crossing the threshold of the gate.
The ground just this side of that stone threshold was packed but sandy and pebbly, and my rubber-soled fisherman sandals slipped so I couldn't get any purchase to tip back the wheelchair. I also had trouble getting around a coed in a white dress and red spike heels who blocked the gate chatting with two able-bodied but oblivious young men. A tiny middle-aged Asian woman helped me get the front wheels through the gate.
The path, as you can see, went downhill. It wasn't too steep, but the sandy, fine-graveled surface presented an immediate and alarming hazard. My soles were already slipping, and I was not going to be able to control the heavy wheelchair. Most likely my feet would go out from under me, I'd fall on my butt and J would go hurtling downhill. Not good. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot for traction.
That solved that problem.
(Yes, guys, it's not your fevered imagination. Those are succulent coeds you see. They are all over the damn place.)
Then we got to the stairs and "ramps," and it was an immediate no go. The ramps on either side of the wide stairs were narrow and absurdly steep. I'm lousy at estimating angles, but they were probably pushing 30 degrees. These pictures only give a hint of how steep they are:
I've pushed J up and down some fairly steep hills (as a cop who came to our rescue in the early days said laconically, "Well, it is called Chapel Hill."), and I've developed a pretty good eye for what I can and can't handle. On this slope I could not have held onto the chair going down, even backwards, and I could not have pushed it back up at all. Now granted, I'm a small person pushing a big person, but only a tiny person with a huge attendant (or two, or three) would have a chance. A motorized chair might brake it, but I think it would be in real danger of tipping over forwards or backwards. The fact is, these ramps are built for baby strollers, not wheelchairs, except maybe those of the sort of paraplegic X-gamers who do marathons and jousts and wheelies.
Here's the accessibility information page of the website, which I didn't take the time to find before we left. It is a little more cautionary than the cheerful assurances I got over the phone, but still way understated:
Many of the five miles of allées, walks, and pathways are suitable for the physically challenged. The east entrance to the gardens is ramped, but has a slope greater than 1 inch in 12 inches [the ADA public standard; but it doesn't say how much greater]. [...] Some areas have steps, and some paths with loose gravel may be difficult for persons who use wheelchairs.
Here's advice about ramps from Wheelchairjunkie.com. He's talking about portable ramps for getting in and out of vans and houses, but a slope is a slope is a slope.
[H]ow long of ramp is needed to achieve a safe, practical angle? The Americans with Disabilities Act standards partially answers these questions by stating that a ramp's maximum incline should be based on no greater than a 1:12 slope, resulting in approximately a 5-degree angle (12" of ramp for every 1" of rise). This, it should be noted, is a "public" standard that epitomizes safety and function [...] It is [...] the ideal standard for those whom must propel their own wheelchair up a ramp. [...]
While safety decreases with increases in angle, a user still may be able to negotiate a steeper ramp than ADA ideals if their abilities and environmental conditions permit. For a 1-foot rise, for example, the ADA standard of 1:12 dictates a 12-feet long ramp. However, if a user assumes a 2:12 slope, building a 6-feet long ramp, approximately a 9.5-degree angle occurs. Now, this is a fairly steep angle, but, again, based on one's abilities, wheelchair performance, and environmental conditions, such an angle still may be usable.
Ramp angles over 10-degrees should be avoided. Stability, traction, and directional control become tremendously reduced. Some powerchairs may climb a greater than a 10-degree angle, but don't confuse capability with safety, as just because a powerchair will climb such extreme angles, doesn't mean it's safe. [...]
In conjunction with ramp angles, ramp widths are vital to ramp use and safety. The wider the ramp in comparison to one's wheelchair, the easier and safer the ramp is to negotiate.
I understand why the Duke Gardens are not wheelchair accessible. They were built at a time (the 1920s and '30s) when awareness of accessibility was primitive to nonexistent, and it would be very difficult to retrofit them. So be it. But don't say they're accessible when they're not! That's my objection. Anyone in our situation who is misled into coming to the Gardens is either going to be disappointed or, if very determined, unsafe.