Richmond Gets Rolling 

Can the city open all of its doors to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games?

click to enlarge Ike Cook, a Vietnam veteran who helped organize the first national wheelchair games, says Richmond has become much easier to navigate since he was injured in 1970. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ike Cook, a Vietnam veteran who helped organize the first national wheelchair games, says Richmond has become much easier to navigate since he was injured in 1970.

Richmond is the city where the National Veterans Wheelchair Games were founded in 1981.

But because of accessibility problems, it took 31 years for the city to get the games back. Richmond is the city where the National Veterans Wheelchair Games were founded in 1981.

But because of accessibility problems, it took 31 years for the city to get the games back. When they’re held here this summer, how will Richmond handle several hundred visitors who use wheelchairs?

Richmond has been trying to win back the games for five or six years, but lost out to other cities because of one main reason: “Accessibility,” says Alison Faulk, local chairwoman of the 32nd annual games. The city had good venues — such as the Greater Richmond Convention Center — but, she says, “hotel access was an issue.”

Organizers predict more than 6,000 people will come to Richmond for the games, to be held June 25 through June 30. That includes athletes, their families, coaches and spectators. The new and renovated hotels that have sprung up around downtown are able to offer about a thousand wheelchair-accessible rooms. The big remaining question: Can downtown restaurants and businesses accommodate guests using wheelchairs?

In recent years, a Maryland disabilities-rights lawyer named Joel Zuckerman has filed more than 100 lawsuits against local restaurants, stores and offices for failing to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Steps, cobblestones and too-narrow doors — all commonly found in Richmond’s historic buildings — can be serious obstacles to people who are disabled. “It’s things that we take for granted,” Faulk says; “however, it’s something that these men and women deal with on a daily basis.”

Organizers are seeking solutions. Linda Worthington, director of sales and services for the Metropolitan Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been conducting inspections to develop a list of accessible restaurants. “Actually, the restaurant access has been pretty decent,” she says.

Worthington also is arranging for buses to convey disabled veterans and their families to Stony Point Fashion Park and other places around the area with easily accessible restaurants and stores.

In Pittsburgh, where the games were held last year, many restaurants opened temporary sidewalk cafes. Veteran Ike Cook suggests that Richmond’s restaurants could do the same, adding plywood ramps or extending sidewalks with wooden platforms.

In the last two years Richmond has spent more than $1.5 million to install, repair or upgrade 749 wheelchair ramps, city spokesman Mike Wallace says. This year the city plans to install 400 more at a cost of $880,000.

Richmond has come a long way since the days when traveling down Broad Street meant bumping up over curbs, says Cook, who’s used a wheelchair since he lost both legs above the knees in the Vietnam War. Now, he says, “we can enjoy our city just like everyone else does.”

Cook, who was a recreational therapist for wounded soldiers at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Medical Center, helped organize the first Veterans Wheelchair Games in 1981. Seventy-four athletes competed. He never thought the games would become a huge national event, he says: “Absolutely never. No one did.”

This summer organizers expect more than 550 veterans to participate. “At a point,” Faulk says, “you’re a minority if you’re ambulatory.”

There are 17 events, including swimming, weight lifting, archery, basketball and quad rugby, a rough-and-tumble sport originally called murder ball. More than a competition, the event is a crucial chance for newly injured soldiers to see how their comrades have persevered and prospered, Cook says: “Just listening, and watching, and hear people talk about what they’re doing.”

Bed and boredom often become a wounded veteran’s new enemies. Army Capt. Mike Luckett was injured on active duty just six months ago and now uses a wheelchair. When he came home, he says: “I knew I had to get out of the bed. Get going. Get back to normal.”

Luckett, a slender, smiling young man with glasses, found his motivation in adaptive sports — competitive athletics for people with disabilities. His specialty is air-rifle target shooting, which he’s been practicing diligently. Of the summer games, he says, “It’s going to get me back to where I was.”

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