Newport Daily News, article by SEAN FLYNN/DAILY NEWS STAFF

NEWPORT - Sarah Everhart-Skeels, who uses a wheelchair every day, guided more than a dozen people unfamiliar with wheelchairs through the city's streets and public buildings Wednesday morning.

The tour was the idea of Annette Bourbonniere, chairwoman of the Newport Accessibility Advisory Committee. The committee, appointed by the City Council, held its first Persons with Disabilities Awareness Day on Wednesday, featuring wheelchair, blind and silent tours.

Committee members said they hoped that giving city officials, business leaders and others a chance to experience the city from the point of view of a person with a disability would improve their understanding of how much remains to be done to achieve accessibility for everyone.

"The point is not negativity, but to reach an understanding," Everhart-Skeels said. "Sometimes you need to walk in the shoes of another, except in this case, it's riding waist high.

"We're trying to show people the challenges you face getting around Newport, but also what good things have been done," she added.

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the experience must be priceless," Bourbonniere said.

The unwieldy group left the Marriott Hotel and headed across America's Cup Avenue, went up to Washington Square, and navigated Broadway and Marlborough Street. They went into City Hall and the Florence K. Murray Judicial Complex. The entrance to the courthouse is at the back, but there is not much signage to guide people seeking wheelchair accessibility.

"You can't go in a straight line," said Deb Mack of Newport, who was in a wheelchair for the first time. "There might be a curb cut on one side of the road, but not on the other side. The condition of the concrete sidewalks is bad. You get stuck in the holes and can't move.

"Now I know why people move to Florida," she said. "You don't have the snow, ice and all the frost heaves that rip up the sidewalk."

Mack also learned some of the lingo that people in wheelchairs use.

"Taking a header is when you go over a curb or tip over after hitting a hole in the concrete," she said. "It would have happened to me today if I didn't have an AB." An AB is the acronym for the able-bodied volunteer accompanying her and providing assistance.

City Councilwoman Jeanne-Marie Napolitano said the experience was an "eye-opener."

"When you are walking around, you don't realize how many areas are inaccessible to wheelchairs," she said. "We kept having to reinvent routes to get where we wanted to go.

"I'm just really shocked how difficult it was to get from the Gateway Center to City Hall," she said. "I couldn't believe it."

There were other unexpected problems, Napolitano said.

"In City Hall, you have to duck your head if you are riding the chairlift up the stairs," she said.

In addition, some standard-sized wheelchairs don't fit in the City Hall elevator, she said. If someone wants to use the chairlift, they have to call the custodian and ask him to turn it on.

"Simple tasks like going to City Hall to pay a bill takes so much time," Napolitano said. "You have to add an hour to the day."

Councilwoman Mary C. Connolly, the council's liaison to the accessibility committee, was one of the volunteers who walked along with novice wheelchair riders and helped them when necessary.

Connolly is a former director of special education in the Newport schools.

"I've dealt with disabilities all my career," she said. "But I've never done something like this, which shows what our friends face on a day-to-day basis. Just getting from here to there requires a lot of work."

"I'm exhausted," said Amy Donnelly-Roche, director of student services in the Newport school system. Her job includes working with students with disabilities, but moving around in a wheelchair was new for her.

"I'm just so glad it's a beautiful day," she said. "I can't imagine doing this in sleet and rain. The problem solving that is needed to get from one area to the next is incredible. Even with federal laws and all the things the city has done, it's far from perfect."

James Reed, executive director of the Housing Authority of Newport, said many residents of the public housing are in wheelchairs. He said he had a purpose for participating as a wheelchair rider.

"If I can come up with some ideas and suggestions, it could benefit our customers," he said. "We want everyone to have access to our programs. I now have an understanding for how patient you have to be if you are in a wheelchair."

Another tour group went up along Perrotti Park, blindfolded with masks and learning to use a cane find the right route to demonstrate the difficulties of blindness. There also was a silent tour to show the challenges faced by people who are deaf or have impaired hearing.

During the afternoon, speakers spoke about various disabilities and the problems associated with them.

Roseanne Ramos, principal and founder of Inclusion by Design of Providence, talked about an initiative her company was involved in on St. John, one of the Virgin Islands. The St. John government and businesses are committed to making the island a possible travel destination for everyone, she said.

Ramos showed a 30-minute movie showing a group of travelers with disabilities enjoying the island, including camping in the national park and kayaking. Ramos' company, which sponsored the travelers, has provided advice to the island on how to improve accessibility.