The mid-block crosswalk installed near Washington School with flashing lights embedded in the road is a blessing, says M.A. Sinnhuber, who uses a cane after a recent injury. The recent renovation of Mt. Lebanon High School added ramps, elevators, upgraded curbs and sidewalks to improve accessibility. A ramp in the auditorium helps people who use wheelchairs.
If you saw me on the street, you’d never know that I once spent a month and a half in a wheelchair after an accident. You’d have no way of knowing that my sister had a mental illness or that both of my kids have celiac disease. Unless I opened my mouth to talk, you’d never guess that I was born profoundly deaf. And even if you heard me, you might mistake my deaf accent for a foreign one.
All this goes to show that, well, you just never know. We all have our differences, challenges, and even disabilities. Not all of them are visible. Anyone you pass on the street could have a disability—visible or not—that affects daily life.
According to the US Census Bureau’s 2009-2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 32,652 non-institutionalized people live in Mt. Lebanon. Of that number, 9.3 percent, or 3,031 people, are estimated to have a disability, with 254 younger than 18, 1,135 ages 18 to 64 and 1,642 age 65 or older. Those figures likely don’t include temporary disabilities, like the one I experienced more than 15 years ago. Whether temporary or permanent, however, no one is immune.
So what is it like living in Mt. Lebanon with a disability? What’s done well, and what needs to be improved? I looked through the lens of my own experiences and talked to other residents about theirs.
My husband and I moved to Mt. Lebanon in late 2004 after three years of living in Squirrel Hill. Prior to that, we spent a few years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley, in a city widely considered the birthplace of disability rights and the independent living movement.
Ten years ago, captioning in movie theaters wasn’t as widespread as it is now. Some theaters in Pittsburgh had open captions (like subtitles) but only for showings on certain days at specific times. Whether with my husband or friends, I had to drive all the way across the river and through two tunnels to the AMC Waterfront to see a captioned movie. Then when the Cinemark opened in Settlers Ridge with Rear Window Captioning (RWC)—in which captioning is displayed on a LED screen that fits in the cup holder—that became my new spot.
Still, I felt like I was inconveniencing my companions every time I wanted to see a movie on the big screen. I requested captions at the Galleria Carmike but didn’t have any luck until I heard about the renovation a few years ago. I contacted the theater again with my request, and was told they were planning to include captioning capability. I recommended CaptiView, the latest technology (like RWC but with Wi-Fi), over closed captioned glasses because it’s much more user-friendly. I was thrilled when I found out that Carmike would have CaptiView, and not just at the Galleria location but at the South Hills Village location, too. Now I can go to movies with my husband, friends, and even my kids.
As a parent, I’m thankful that today’s technology allows me to communicate with the schools via email. Mt. Lebanon teachers are easily accessible and actually prefer email, which works in my favor. Since PTA meetings are too difficult for me to follow, I’m glad that our principals now have Twitter accounts, emails, and newsletters, so I can keep up with the latest news. And of course Mt. Lebanon Magazine’s Facebook page is a valuable community resource (I swear, I wasn’t asked to add that!). I wish the kids’ schools had Facebook pages as well, but perhaps that will come in time.
Mt. Lebanon is known as a walking community, which makes navigating Mt. Lebanon’s surfaces another matter entirely. Rock Magleby-Lambert, Shadowlawn Avenue, uses a cane because he has a full-length artificial right leg. He cites the sheer number of hills and stairs to climb as among Mt. Lebanon’s challenges and says it was tough to find a house with both a level front and rear entry, along with a first floor bedroom.
On the upside, Magleby-Lambert appreciates the number of disabled parking spaces around town and is grateful that nearly all the public buildings and garages have elevators.
M.A. Sinnhuber, Washington Road, who currently is using a cane outside as she recovers from breaking her femur, says the lighted crosswalk in front of Washington School is a blessing and safety necessity. She says Mt. Lebanon residents are kind and aware when it comes to people with disabilities. Even with the flashing lights at the Washington Road crosswalk, though, Sinnhuber advises caution, as drivers don’t alway pay heed.
Students with mobility issues have reason to be thankful that the high school has been renovated, because it is now up to ADA standards. “Some of the improvements include ramps, multiple elevators, bathrooms, doorway widths, exterior door openers, improved curb and sidewalk access, [and] auditorium stage access,” says school district Communications Director Cissy Bowman.
When my daughter was almost three-and-a-half years old, she was diagnosed with celiac disease. Her brother was diagnosed at about one. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the body reacts to gluten when it’s eaten. People who have celiac get sick right away and have other symptoms that can last for days. Long-term effects include infertility and cancer. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet. Because a mere crumb of bread can make them sick, cross contamination is a real issue.
Thankfully, there’s much more awareness about celiac these days compared to when we first started on this journey more than 10 years ago, but there’s still a way to go. It doesn’t help that some people consider eating gluten-free (GF) to be the latest fad diet. We have to tell restaurants that the kids are “medical level gluten-free,” not “Hollywood gluten-free.”
“Many local restaurants are adding more gluten-free friendly options, but the area is still way behind other major cities,” says Suzanne Weiner, co-owner of Eden’s Market, Alfred Street, which sells certified gluten-free items. Weiner’s family lives with both celiac and non-celiac gluten intolerance, so she and husband Jeff offer personalized advice to patrons.
Dining out can be problematic because of cross contamination, Weiner says. Even though many menu items are either naturally GF or can be prepared in a GF manner, they can become contaminated by an unknowing, uneducated or sloppy kitchen staff.
Many hospitals don’t have GF options, which can make life even more difficult for patients. Weiner says St. Clair Hospital now does a great job for GF patients, even offering GF waffles for breakfast. The hospital’s fourth-floor café does not have gluten-free options but a number of gluten-free meals are available to outpatients and guests in the second floor cafeteria, including pizza, mac and cheese, chicken wraps, vegetable wraps and more, says hospital spokesman Robert Crytzer.
Then there’s the school district, where well-meaning parents can unintentionally bring in food for class parties that could make other kids sick. The district recently revised its wellness policy to comply with federal guidelines. Schools are free to implement their own policies, as long as they’re not more lenient than the district’s policy, Bowman says. Lincoln and Howe decided not to serve food at parties, Bowman says, while Washington has limited their party foods to fruits and vegetables. “The remaining schools are using the threshold of the guidelines,” says Bowman.
Similarly, it’s up to each school to decide whether to have a microwave in the cafeteria. Lincoln has one, but Jefferson Middle doesn’t. This means that kids who can’t purchase food in school because of dietary issues are limited in the sorts of things they can pack in their lunches. The high school does not have a microwave because of past safety issues, Bowman says.
What about other dietary issues, like food allergies? “The most common food allergies in Mt. Lebanon are no different than anywhere else in the United States,” says Dr. David Nash, director, Outreach Allergy and Immunology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy account for over 90 percent of food allergies.”
Carina Perilman’s daughter Maya, 10, Ridgefield Avenue, is allergic to peanuts, pistachios and cashews. There are a lot of places in town where she can’t eat because of cross contamination—mainly bakeries and ice cream shops. Carina always carries an EpiPen—an autoinjector that carries a dose of epinephrine to counteract anaphylactic shock—and Maya carries one with her if she plans to eat.
While Carina says that living with food allergies isn’t good no matter the location, she believes that Mt. Lebanon as a community is more educated in general. However, she would love to see more awareness in the schools. Her nephew’s school in New York doesn’t allow peanuts to be served or any food to be brought into school that has a nut warning on it. This includes “manufactured in a facility that handles nuts.” Here, the choices are to take chances or be banned to the “nut-free table” at school. “This is barely a caution when kids are eating nuts and interacting,” says Carina. “I’m lucky that my daughter’s sensitivity is not that high when it comes to exposure, but some kids have airborne allergies. They wouldn’t even be able to sit in the lunch room at our schools.”
A lot of people brush off allergies as an inconvenience, says Carina, especially when they don’t have any personal experience with them. Many local businesses train their staffs to be sensitive, but there are still businesses that remain ignorant or apathetic.
Jason and Jessica Ewell, Washington Road, who moved to Mt. Lebanon two years ago, were both born blind with the ability to perceive light and dark. They chose to live in Mt. Lebanon because they needed to live somewhere on the south edge of Pittsburgh near the light rail transit line. Mt. Lebanon’s walking community was appealing to them, since they don’t drive.
The Ewells use long white canes every day. Because of proper cane travel training, they are able to function as pedestrians without assistance or prior knowledge of an area. Jason doesn’t view steps as an obstacle and laughs at the idea that they could be dangerous.
But the transition to southwestern Pennsylvania wasn’t easy. “Six months after we moved to Pittsburgh, we were actually considering leaving,” says Jason. “After moving here, we were shocked to discover how bad the cabs were in Pittsburgh. I have visited dozens of cities across the country, and my experience is that Pittsburgh has the worst cabs in America.”
Thankfully, in the spring of 2014, Uber started operating. It was a life-changing development for Jason, as it provides on-demand transportation at an affordable price, which he considers a pretty good substitute for owning a car. He says he was disgusted by the PA Public Utilities Commission’s negative reaction to Uber and Lyft’s entry into the market. “They should have been begging these companies to come to Pittsburgh,” he says. “Their behavior sent a powerful message to the blind of Pennsylvania, as well as others without cars.”
It can sometimes be uncomfortable to speak up and advocate for change. After all, “It can be embarrassing and frustrating for a person with a disability to say, ‘I can’t do that,’ Magleby-Lambert says. “But making reasonable accommodations beforehand is about respect and not pity. It is empowering to be able to go where other people go and do what other people do because an accommodation is already available when the need arises.”
To help parents and children navigate life with a disability, State Rep. Dan Miller is having his third annual Children and Youth Disabilities Summit March 3 and 4. The summit, to be held at Beth El Congregation, will feature more than 75 agencies and presenters. In addition to physical disabilities, Miller’s summit aims to help families deal with mental health issues and intellectual challenges. For details: www.pahouse.com/Miller/News/?id=68980