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[First of a three-part series]
By DANIEL VANCE
The Civil War began 150 years ago. This year, crowds have been flocking in record numbers to American battlefields where Gray and Blue spilled blood.
Perhaps the most famous Civil War battlefield city of all, Gettysburg, has seen fighting over the last five years of another nature. Disability rights activist Dr. Marilynn Phillips of Hampstead, Maryland, has been leading a full-scale assault to make the city of Gettysburg accessible for millions of annual visitors.
“I decided a long time ago that advocates just talked and activists did,” said 67-year-old Phillips in a telephone interview. “I don't perceive myself as aggressive or confrontational. I just take a civil rights approach to accessibility.”
Phillips acquired polio at age 2. Later, she earned her doctorate from Ivy-league Penn and was a Morgan State University English professor upon retiring. Today, she uses a power wheelchair due to having post-polio syndrome.
She said most people with disabilities tend to “beg” for accessible accommodations rather than press the issue as one of basic civil rights. Her first fight began in 1988 soon after her husband, Dr. Robert Winans, started teaching at Gettysburg College.
“For example, the College back then would ask people using wheelchairs to go through the back door to get into the auditorium,” she said. “You had to make special arrangements to have somebody open the back door. Once in, you had to sit in the aisle, which was against fire code.”
Around the time her husband retired in 2006, she heard of a power wheelchair-using Vietnam veteran having all kinds of difficulty navigating Gettysburg sidewalks and streets. She said, “For three years, this man had been trying to get the borough of Gettysburg to improve the curb ramps (also called curb cuts) along the route he usually took. My husband and I went to Gettysburg and spent the entire day helping him document everything with photographs and measurements.”
The vet's wheelchair route had 35 sidewalk curb ramps and all but a few were too steep, awkwardly slanted or had broken concrete. She helped him file a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission complaint. Over time, through the advice of an attorney, the borough ended up spending $2 million to repair 500 Gettysburg curb ramps. Next column, read how Phillips used this initial victory as momentum to persuade dozens of Gettysburg businesses to become accessible.
Facebook: “Disabilities by Daniel J Vance” [Palmer Bus Service and Blue Valley Sod made this column possible.]