nbcwashington.com | By Adam Tuss, Rick Yarborough and Steve Jones
As gas prices continue to rise, most people take for granted the simple act of going to the gas station and quickly filling up. But for those in the disabled community, getting gas is more than just a quick trip. It requires plenty of planning. “Driving is freedom. You don’t realize the freedom until you don’t have it anymore,” said Jesse Graham of Bristow, Virginia.
A 12-year U.S. Air Force Veteran, Graham chose to join the military after Sept. 11, 2001. But when he was 30, a snowboarding accident left him a quadriplegic and in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, he was determined not to lose his sense of independence and free will – even with his disability. “Being able to travel on my own, do my own thing,” he said. But traveling takes fuel; for Graham, getting gas takes planning, coordination, and extra effort. “I mean, if you can’t get gas, you can’t get around,” he said. He often calls ahead to have someone help him pump the gas, but the help isn’t always available. “Either they won’t come out, or they can’t come out,” he said. That leaves him no other option but to go through the process of getting out of his car to pump the gas – sometimes with dangerous results. “I’ve had people run over the ramp in my van. I’ve had people almost hit me while I was rolling out of my van. I’ve had people block my ramp,” he said.
Gas stations are required to provide assistance at the pump, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, but only if more than one employee is working. “Right now, there’s no uniform way of, you know, getting that person to come out,” said Lee Page with Paralyzed Veterans of America. He said that in the years he’s been monitoring the issue of accessibility at the pump, it has not significantly improved. “Yeah, I think it’s a huge problem,” Page said. Some gas pumps have a call button to get an attendant to help, but the buttons are not required.
However, a new smartphone app called fuelService is gaining attention in the D.C. region as a possible solution at the pump. Kelley Simoneaux, who uses a wheelchair, says it’s been a game changer for her.
“I have three kids,” she said. “I’m always going somewhere, you know, having to run around kids, and so it would always be this whole process of, like, how I fit, when do I need gas? How am I going to fit it in?” The app pairs gas stations available to help pump gas for those users who need assistance. She demonstrated how it works. “Now that I’m here, I just ask for assistance. It asks me which pump I’m at so it can specifically identify who it is that they’re trying to help,” said Simoneaux. “It will let me know their ETA. Sometimes it’s two minutes, three, four. And I just know when to expect them to come out and pump my gas.”
Josh Basile of Potomac, Maryland, has been driving the fuelService app – which started in the U.K. – here in the U.S. “It’s just making the whole process easier for both the stations and drivers with disabilities. There are more than 1,000 gas stations up and down the east coast using the app. Over 400 in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia area. So much within the disability community is about awareness. So, letting the community know, letting the world know that this exists.”
More than 8 million people like Graham in this country are living with a mobility issue. “I know I’m a small percentage of the population, so I don’t expect the world to conform to me.” He’s heard of the app but hasn’t tried it yet. “I think anything that helps and makes things more accessible is always a good idea,” Graham said. He’d like to also see bigger lanes at gas stations for those in wheelchairs and easy-to-reach intercoms to communicate with those inside. And, for him, more patience from everyone.
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