As I was walking into Vons’s supermarket in north Laguna, a woman named Christine Kelton stopped me and asked my name. When I told her, she asked if I wrote columns for this newspaper. I said yes, and she told me she loved my writing and wished those obnoxious people who keep writing paranoid-dribble criticisms would stop.
Of course, I was flattered (writers can never be flattered enough), and since I was searching for an idea for a new column, I asked her if she had one. She immediately said yes. Ten years ago, her husband had been in an accident that left him in a wheelchair, and getting around Laguna was extremely difficult. Further, many restaurants and shops in Laguna do not have ADA (American Disability Act) access, and she wished I would write about that.
Immediately, I thought of my father. He died of complications from diabetes, but before that, he lost his eyesight and both legs to the disease. Diabetes causes your capillaries to contract and lose blood flow. Over time, your retina resembles a dried-up, flaking lake bottom as your eyesight fades. But the effects on your lower legs are worse. Sooner or later, you will develop a lower leg or foot infection that does not receive ample blood flow. The infection festers, becomes gangrene, and you will die of sepsis unless your leg is amputated, with the cut usually made about six inches below the knee to leave room for the bone spur to fit within the socket of a prosthetic leg and foot.
My father turned to the prosthetic devices and could even walk a bit, but not much. The rest of the time, he was in a wheelchair. It always took a lot of work to get around. Many times, I would drive him. At our destination, I would open the car’s trunk, wrestle out the wheelchair, unfold it, push it to the passenger seat and help my father move from the car to the chair, but not before making sure the foot pedals were rotated straight up so my father’s “feet” would not get tangled.
Once in that chair, I would rotate the pedals to a level position, lock the whole thing in place, and proceed to the first obstacle: the curb (back then, ADA ramp access was rare). To get on it, I would push down on the back handles of the wheelchair to lift the front two wheels, get them on the sidewalk, push the whole thing forward 18 inches, and then physically lift the back two wheels onto the sidewalk (with my father sitting in it). Then, we would have to find a front door wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. There were other obstacles (did the place have an elevator?), but the biggest were bathrooms. Was there a toilet stall with a big enough door to get in? Did it have ADA side handles next to the toilet?
So, I knew the problem exceptionally well. I asked Mrs. Kelton to write me an email describing some of her Laguna problems, and she did. It is heartbreaking and mostly about old restaurants with no ADA access and no real opportunity to create them unless the owner performs major remedial work. That is a big problem. In Laguna, every owner knows darn well that the approval process is a nightmare to be avoided like the plague.
It reinforces my one major criticism of Laguna Beach: its governance structure is as tricky to navigate as it is for someone in a wheelchair to make it to the bathroom.
Michael co-founded Orange County School of the Arts, The Discovery Cube, Sage Hill School, Art Spaces Irvine and several other area nonprofit organizations. He is a business partner with Sanderson-J. Ray Development and has lived in Laguna Beach since the early 1980s.