Memorial aims to be accessible for all

World War II tribute to offer accommodations for disabled, elderly

May 28, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Marg Nelson began making arrangements months ago. First the airline tickets and the hotel reservations. Next, the Battle of the Bulge reunion details. Then the downloading of photos of the new World War II memorial on the National Mall.

Then she tackled a final detail: finding a way for her elderly mother, Mabel, weakened by heart trouble, and her father Margden, on the mend from prostate cancer, to navigate around the 7 1/2 -acre memorial grounds for the dedication tomorrow.

Nelson, a homemaker from Vancouver, Wash., decided to rent a pair of wheelchairs for $100, a popular move among the thousands of people who began descending on the Washington Mall yesterday and one of many accommodations being made to ease the so-called "greatest generation" through the memorial weekend.

A total of 117,000 free tickets were distributed to enter the memorial for tomorrow's ceremonies, presided over by President Bush.

"We knew there was gonna be an awful lot of people there, and some of the World War II vets are incredibly old," said Nelson, whose father served as motor sergeant for the 188th Field Artillery Battalion that landed at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. With organizers of tomorrow's event expecting that more than half the visitors will be older than 75 - many of them disabled veterans of a war that ended 59 years ago, thousands will likely rely on walkers, canes, wheelchairs, motorized scooters, and even golf carts.

Russ Holt, co-founder of a Maryland company that publishes a guide for disabled visitors to Washington, helped coordinate accommodations at the memorial.

"We've helped with events before," Holt said. "But what's different with this event is the sheer magnitude of people with disabilities coming to town."

Concern about accommodating the needs of the elderly and sick has prompted particular attention among the organizers. The World War II memorial was designed to be entirely accessible to the handicapped, with broad lanes leading down a gentle slope to a central fountain.

"The World War generation does have some health and mobility issues, and we've been working very closely to make this event as user-friendly for them as possible," said Betsy Glick, a spokeswoman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversaw the 16-year, $195 million memorial project.

Those logistics include enlisting missing persons' detectives to help reunite elderly visitors separated from their loved ones, and having dietitians specializing in senior care modify vendor offerings to accommodate those with diabetes, heart troubles, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Volunteers will distribute 400,000 bottles of donated water. Thirty grief counselors from the Department of Veterans Affairs Readjustment Counseling Office will offer aid to veterans.

The District of Columbia, in the midst of a lawsuit brought to force the city to honor handicapped parking permits from other jurisdictions, temporarily suspended a requirement for disabled drivers to obtain city permits or risk a ticket.

A medical supply company parked a van yesterday near one of the health care tents, filled with wheelchair parts and a technician ready to make no-cost emergency repairs. The Metro transit system retrofitted 25 buses to shuttle ticketed guests to the Mall, replacing dozens of seats with tie-down systems to accommodate 15 riders in wheelchairs. And the rail system will allow additional time for people to board and depart.

"We built in some extra time, if it is needed, because depending of the number of people and more importantly, the people themselves - older, elderly, some of them in wheelchairs - they need to be accommodated," said Steven Taubenkibel, a spokesman for Metro.

Yesterday, as workers settled gray plastic matting on the grass to smooth the way for golf cart, scooter and wheelchair traffic, Carl Griesmer, 81, a former boatswain's mate 2nd class, and his wife Alice, 77, paused to gaze at the memorial.

The couple had driven more than 500 miles from suburban Detroit for the ceremony, whose speakers will include President Bush and former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. They made provisions to rent a motorized scooter.

"I don't do too much walking at home," Griesmer said from the shade of a USS Gen. J.C. Breckinridge baseball cap.

There was no way he'd have managed to cover the distance from the street to the memorial's entryway, he added, let alone around the entire site.

"This is the only way I could make it here," he said, nodding to the handlebars.

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