On a trip to Chicago a few years ago, Jeanne Allen wanted to go sightseeing while her husband attended a conference, but she struggled to find information on venues that were accessible to wheelchair users.
“I found that the information was spotty,” recalled Allen, a Sonoma resident who has multiple sclerosis and relies on a motorized scooter to get around.
Websites don’t always address accessibility, she said.
“Even hotels don’t give good information about rooms,” Allen added.
The challenge of putting together a sightseeing itinerary for the Windy City sparked an idea for Allen, 60, a former senior project manager for Levi Strauss in San Francisco. She’d go on to create a website providing travel tips to people with limited mobility. And since she wanted to start small, Allen, who launched incredibleaccessible.com about a year ago, is focusing first on her own backyard — Sonoma and Napa counties.
She has visited numerous hotels, restaurants, shops and wineries throughout the region, taking notes, for example, on accessible parking spots, bathrooms with grab bars and enough space to accommodate her scooter, and steps that could block access for a disabled person.
Often, she runs into problems with historic buildings that haven’t been remodeled. They have narrow doorways, tight bathrooms with low toilets and no room for wheelchairs, stairways and even steps that are just a few inches high but impossible for people in scooters to get over, she explained.
“When you’re in a scooter,” she said, “one step is a problem.”
Wendy Peterson, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, praised the project. She said Allen, a neighbor, had approached her about the idea to make the Wine Country more accessible to disabled tourists a year ago.
“We consider what she’s doing as just an absolutely remarkable thing that really helps open Sonoma’s open arms even wider,” Peterson said. “This is an extension of Sonoma’s hospitality.”
Allen posted on her site videos and photos, including those of trips to Jack London State Historic Park for a performance by the Transcendence Theatre Company and to Sonoma Skypark airport, where she boarded a plane with the help of a Coastal Air Tours pilot and went out for a spin.
But not all visits go well, said Allen, who has received help from friends and local residents with shooting pictures and videos.
Although the federal Americans With Disabilities Act went into effect more than two decades ago, she said some businesses are not accessible for people with mobility issues. Rather than call them out on her site or pursue litigation, she said she brings up the problems to the businesses and waits for them to fix them before listing them on her site as good places to visit. She hopes highlighting compliant locations will encourage others to pay more attention to accessibility, particularly as baby boomers age and require walkers, wheelchairs and motorized scooters to get around.
Ben Stone, executive director of Sonoma County’s Economic Development Board, also lauded the collaborative approach.
“It’s leading by example,” he said, adding that businesses should start paying attention to the needs of disabled and aging tourists.
One in three Americans are 50 years or older, according to AARP’s Livable Communities, which has been pushing for more U.S. cities and towns to provide “age-friendly” housing and transportation.