Hannah Michelle Bussa
Omahans with disabilities are speaking up about their accessibility needs.
Nancy Berg runs the account @accessible402 on Instagram, where she posts about accessibility in Omaha. She was paralyzed in a car accident in 1995 when she was 16 years old.
“I was riding in the backseat of a friend’s car that lost control and hit a tree,” she said. “I was wearing a lap belt, and at impact, I broke my back leaving me with a spinal cord injury. I lost my ability to walk independently, so I rely on a wheelchair to help me get around.”
She said she wanted to create a centralized place to post about accessible and adaptive activities for wheelchair users in the Omaha area, which is why she created the Instagram account.
“A lot of times, businesses do not post accessibility accommodation information on their websites,” she said. “I post about activities and places that I have learned about from other wheelchair users, word of mouth, and through personal experiences.”
Berg said an example is Joe’s Karting, which has a go-kart that has hand controls and a Hoyer lift to help wheelchair users transfer from their wheelchair to the go-kart.
“I would have never known that go-karting was a possibility for me until I met another wheelchair user that goes there regularly,” she said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, she said the posts about adaptive activities have slowed down a bit, so she posts about her life with a spinal cord injury, wheelchair accessories, tips on how to make spaces more accessible and local resources for those with disabilities.
While Berg said accessibility has improved in the last decade, most places only meet bare minimum access needs. For example, she can open a door independently, but there are others who may need to have an automatic door to meet their access needs.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed in 1990, and there are many buildings that were built prior to 1990 that were grandfathered in,” she said. “They may have narrow doorways that I cannot fit through, no elevators, no accessible entrance, no accessible bathroom stalls, or lack of accessible parking.”
She said in places like the Old Market, many businesses don’t even have an accessible entrance.
“If you take a walk/stroll in Omaha, you will notice the number of sidewalks that need fixed and curb cuts that are missing,” she said. “Plus, we need more inclusive and barrier free playgrounds in Omaha. Someday I won’t have to think about if a place is accessible, it just will be.”
Nia Karmann, who was born with Spina Bifida, also speaks out about accessibility needs. She said she has always faced the world with a can-do attitude and doesn’t let her disability stop her from trying new things.
As a professional photographer, she said she uses her perspective to show others the beauty of the world.
“Just because someone is either born with or becomes disabled, they still have a purpose and have the same wants, needs and desires like everyone else,” she said.
Karmann said Omaha has a lot of growing to do when it comes to accessibility.
“Businesses and public places should all be accessible to everyone,” she said. “They must have up-to-code curb cutouts, automatic doors and/or buttons to help open the door. They also need accessible ramps that are conveniently located – not clear in the back of the building and hardly ever used or never taken care of—if zero entry isn’t an option.”
She said the Old Market and many surrounding areas are not at all accessible, which is unfortunate.
“Sidewalks and parking lots should be clear and safe to navigate, including ice and snow removal,” she said. “The scooters and bicycles available to the able-bodied population of the city should be kept out of the way of curb cutouts and crosswalks and need to be put away after being used.”
Berg said accessibility in Omaha is important.
“Since I use a wheelchair, I don’t have the option of not thinking about accessibility,” she said. “When my access needs are met, it makes me feel like I matter and can be included.”
She said there are a number of places that she still cannot access independently, and a number of restaurants and bars don’t even have an accessible bathroom stall.
“One in four people in the United States has a disability, and we deserve to be present,” Berg said. “When accessibility is in the forefront, nobody is left behind.”
Karmann said accessibility is everything.
“The world is an able-bodied world and forgets those of us who rely on accessibility to be included in everyday life,” she said. “That is a right everyone deserves, and unfortunately that aspect is forgotten.”
Kurmith Path has lived in Omaha since 2005. He is the only Deaf person in his hearing family.
“Accessibility is so important to me,” he said. “Because I would like to have equality—to be able to be involved in information and communication.”
Path said Deaf and hard of hearing people hate to be left out and denied work opportunities due to their deafness.
“As a Black Deaf man living in Omaha, I had a hard time finding jobs,” he said. “Most of them reject or won’t hire me just because I am Deaf.”
Path attended UNO for one semester in 2018.
“It was a rough semester for me, I had such a hard time finding an interpreter for my classes,” he said.
He said that some of his classes didn’t provide closed captions or helpful communication.
“I was kind of in my dorm all the time trying to figure out how to find answers for my classes,” he said. “I transferred to Gallaudet after [that semester] at UNO. There were so many accessible things I could find there.”
Gallaudet is a university focused on education for Deaf and hard of hearing students in Washington, D.C., that uses ASL as the primary language.
“Omaha should be more accessible for Deaf people,” Path said. “Respect our wishes to have on closed captions whenever possible, write down notes, or show our phones.”
Jerad Covey was born with a neuromuscular disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He uses a powerchair daily to get around and requires a modified vehicle with a lift or ramp for transportation.
“Perhaps the pandemic has shown how important accessibility is when it comes to community engagement and voicing issues with regards to our safety and well-being,” he said. “On the one hand, you have technologies like Zoom remove the physical barriers to group interaction, and on the other hand, lockdowns showed many people a real glimpse of how inaccessibility harms everyone.”
Covey said transportation accessibility is an area that needs improvement in Omaha.
“Omaha could benefit from a forward-thinking vision on implementing an attractive and inclusive mobility network,” he said.
He said with the increase in rural Nebraskans moving to Omaha, current services need to increase capacity and new services need to be implemented to fill gaps.
“Depending on the type of disability, a person may be dependent upon and influenced by things like family members’ work/school schedules, personal care assistants not showing up for their shift, limited public transportation schedules, or lack of wheelchair-modified taxi vehicle availability,” he said. “These are some of the issues to overcome before even arriving at your destination.”
Once at a destination, it can get even more difficult to participate when real estate developers and city inspectors haven’t created an accessible space that is actually functional. He said spaces may look accessible on the plans but might not be actually built to be accessible and functional.
Berg said she believes transportation accessibility is the number one accessibility issue in Omaha.
“For those that use a powerchair, the number of vehicles that are available to accommodate these individuals is very limited,” she said. “It is costly, only available during a certain time frame, and not always dependable.”
She said MOBY is a more affordable option for some disabled people, but that is only available to a certain area of Omaha.
“It has a fixed schedule, and all rides must be within 3/4 of a mile of the fixed Metro Bus route,” she said. “If a destination is out of range, then you cannot be transported to that location.”
Karmann said she wishes people would be more aware of these accessibility needs and have more empathy.
“We are all people and we deserve the same respect,” she said. “Opportunities to grow as individuals and as a community need to be available and accessible to everyone.”
Path said he wishes everyone could support and accept Deaf people in the hearing world.
“If we work together, there are ways that we can make a place a much better place,” he said.
He said he wants people to look at disability in a more positive way. Instead of apologizing when they find out he is Deaf, he wishes people would include him.
“What we have as a disability is we just can’t hear,” he said. “But we can do anything else just like hearing people. We can have knowledge, education and leadership skills. It’s just that we can’t hear.”
Path said he wants to see more Deaf people working in businesses and more people to learn sign language.
“Accessibility is a human right,” Berg said. “I should not have to feel grateful because a place has a ramp or an accessible bathroom. These things are basic needs. Those with disabilities want to have the same opportunities as non-disabled people.”
Berg said people should speak up about accessibility.
“When you see a place that is not accessible or has barriers, make your voice heard,” she said. “For the longest time, I would keep quiet because I didn’t want to be seen as a bother. We have the power to make changes for the greater good. Accessibility benefits everybody.”
Covey said he feels like there is an increased awareness and value for accessibility. He is excited to participate in future improvements.
“If you want to make a space inclusive and accessible, invite people with disabilities to be part of the conversation,” Berg said. “We have the most experience and insight when it comes to accessibility accommodations.”