The road to inclusion: Inclusive doesn't always mean equal
The Rochester-Finger Lakes region is gaining a reputation for inclusive recreation.
In Fairport, Pittsford, Brockport, Victor, and Canandaigua, there are bike paths, kayak launches, a universal playground, and various kinds of adaptive equipment for people of all ages to enjoy.
But disability justice advocate Luticha Doucette believes this movement has been dominated by white people.
"It's the suburbs, our white suburbs that have the access, that have the inclusion," she said.
Doucette, who lives in the city of Rochester, uses a wheelchair and has limited use of her hands due to neck and brain injuries caused by a car crash when she was not quite 2 years old.
While she sees the value of inclusive sports, she said this isn’t within reach for some people living in Rochester. She mentioned an adaptive kayak launch in Fairport as an example.
"How are you gonna get there if you don't have a car?" she asked. "How are you gonna get there if you're working two or three jobs? How are you gonna do that when the stressors that you're seeing don't really give you a lot of time to do recreational activities?"
Nicole Nabors said she has faced some of these obstacles since a domestic violence incident paralyzed her.
The 41-year-old Navy veteran and former high school basketball player wasn't sure how she could remain active after the 2006 shooting lodged a bullet in her spine. Another bullet landed in her neck, permanently injuring her left arm. She now uses a wheelchair.
"The summer was actually a really depressing time because it was reminiscent of when I would play basketball all summer," she recalled. "That's sort of what summer represented — basketball and running a mile a day for six days a week."
Then Nabors discovered adaptive kayaking and biking after attending an event hosted by Rochester Accessible Adventures. The nonprofit, which began in 2015, works with local municipalities and organizations to provide inclusive recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.
Nabors fell in love with biking and kayaking along the Erie Canal. But as a city resident, she also ran into obstacles.
One Saturday morning a few years ago, she said she took an RTS Lift Line to Fairport but had to wait until 9 p.m. before she could get another bus to take her back home.
"That is a huge barrier, a huge inconvenience," she said. "But what else was I supposed to do?"
Rochester's public transit system was overhauled in 2021. The paratransit service is now called RTS Access, and riders have the option of on-demand service within certain geographic zones. A spokesperson said an Access bus is considered to be on time if it arrives within 20 minutes of a passenger's request.
Nabors now has her own vehicle, but she would still like to find things to do closer to where she lives, in the South Wedge.
"I wish I could kayak here," she said.
That may be possible in some locations. Floating kayak and canoe launches at the newly renovated West River Wall at Corn Hill and on Petten Street near the Port of Rochester both have a transfer bench to help boaters get into and out of their vessels.
A different approach will be used for another project in the ROC the Riverway initiative. Instead of a dock, the boat launch at Genesee Gateway Park will feature a break in a section of the river wall to create a recessed cove. Kayakers will enter the water on a sloped ramp.
The city’s project manager, Jeffrey Mroczek, said this design was chosen because floating debris and ice floes pose a greater threat to a floating dock on the east side of the Genesee River. He said if the city gets feedback that the current plans are inadequate for adaptive kayakers, they may consider installing a transfer bench, a Hoyer lift, or other traditional approaches.
Once kayak and bike season are over, Nabors enjoys wall climbing at Central Rock Gym on Averill Avenue. The gym has an adaptive climbing program for people with limb difference, neuromuscular damage, spinal cord injury, or visual impairment. Monthly sessions cost $10, but assistant manager Jason Kraybill said there are ways to reduce that if the price is a barrier for someone.
The Genesee Valley Sports Complex on Elmwood Avenue, the Trenton and Pamela Jackson R-Center on North Clinton Avenue, and the Adams Street R-Center have pool lifts. They are transfer benches used to lower and raise people into and out of a pool.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires newly constructed and public pools to have accessible means of entry. Pools built before 2010 are exempt from the rule unless installation is “readily achievable.”
But Anita O'Brien, executive director of Rochester Accessible Adventures, envisions even greater possibilities for the city’s 13 recreation centers.
In these centers or any in other setting, she believes a critical component to welcoming people with disabilities is the training of staff in disability culture and awareness and being intentional about helping them feel they belong.
"I might be able to say to someone, 'That amenity of a pool lift is there,' but if they go to a space and don't feel like they were expected there, then they may never go again or they may not go in the first place," she explained.
When Mayor Malik Evans took office this year, he appointed a new commissioner of recreation and human services, Shirley Green. A spokesperson at City Hall said Green was not available for an interview in time for this story.
O'Brien said she has made multiple inquiries with the city of Rochester over the last seven years about the need for more adaptive recreation, but election cycles can disrupt these conversations.
"An issue like inclusion and accessibility can't come and go with an administration," she said. "It has to be just a part of the culture."
Now that a kind of normalcy has been restored after two years of COVID-19 restrictions, O'Brien feels these conversations can start again.
"It would be easier to clean the ocean sometimes, I think, than systems change like this," she said. "However, because I see it happening in our communities, I know it's possible."
This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.