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Norwich - When Kevin Harkins walks through his Chelsea Parade area neighborhood or makes his way downtown, he notices things that might escape the eyes of other casual observers.
Harkins is blind, and feels meticulously with his white cane for every obstacle. He finds many of them blocking or simply sticking out into sidewalks that others can simple step around. Recycling buckets, garbage cans, overgrown brush, crumbled sections of sidewalk and even cars parked directly on the sidewalk can pose major safety hazards to Harkins and other residents with disabilities or even to parents walking with young children in strollers.
"One day, I was walking down Oneco Street to the store," Harkins said. "And someone had set up a basketball hoop in the middle of the sidewalk."
Last October, even before the election, then Alderwoman and now Mayor Deberey Hinchey asked Harkins to help her launch a disabilities commission. With Hinchey now in office, Harkins has been researching issues faced by people with disabilities and ways other cities have addressed them.
Harkins, who is president of the Norwich Lions Club, spoke to people at the Disabilities Network of Eastern Connecticut, other Lions Club members, the VFW, the Southeastern Connecticut Center for the Blind and Norwich Emergency Management Director Gene Arters.
Harkins is seeking more input from Norwich residents or advocates for people with disabilities before he finishes his report. He hopes to submit it to Hinchey this week. To offer input, contact Harkins at firstname.lastname@example.org or (860) 886-0762.
The problems and their potential solutions range from simple to complex and expensive. Harkins said residents and recycling and garbage collection crews can be asked to place buckets to the side of main pathways. Delivery truck drivers can be made aware that parking on sidewalks can pose an obstacle to pedestrians.
But the city's long sections of crumbling sidewalks would be very expensive to repair or replace. Some city office buildings are not handicapped accessible. Handicapped access to the Planning and Development office is through a hidden rear doorway to the basement meeting room.
Public transit services also are limited during evenings, weekends and holidays.
Harkins liked the New Haven commission's simple two-paragraph mission statement that the group seeks to enhance the quality of life of all citizens by embracing the contributions made by people with disabilities. Fixing sidewalks improves the quality of life for all, he said.
Hinchey said she looks forward to the report and examining the issue.
"We will have short-term cheaper things and long-term more expensive things," Hinchey said. "I think as a city we should examine both. If there's something that we have to do, something major, then we have to think about putting it in the capital budget if it's something the city should be responsible for."
Hinchey is a member of the Southeast Area Transit board of directors and would bring public transit issues to that board, she said.
Once she receives the report, Hinchey plans to meet with city Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll to discuss how to create a commission.
Harkins will suggest a commission of seven to nine members, with 51 percent being people with disabilities and the rest representatives of agencies that provide services to people with disabilities, including the city's Emergency Management Department.
The group's primary function should be to ensure major issues are addressed, including possible violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The commission could bring complaints or problems to the appropriate city departments or to the city's ADA officer, Brigid Marks, the city human resources director.
Some disabilities commissions have monthly public forums, another idea Harkins likes to keep the commission active.
"What I found is cities set these up and then lose interest," Harkins said. "They have a few meetings and then people give up."