- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

URBANA, Md. (AP) - When John Gretz was younger, he said, he’d think nothing of going out for a 10- or 12-mile run.

For much of his life, the Villages of Urbana resident was not only an avid runner, but he also coached track and cross-country. However, in the last four or five years, Gretz said, he began experiencing increasing symptoms of a rare neuromuscular disease that causes tripping and foot-dragging.

That’s when Gretz started noticing the sidewalks near his home.

First, he got frustrated by uneven sidewalks, spotting many places where one concrete block was raised above the next one, creating a tripping hazard. And when he started looking around his streets for curb ramps, slopes that join sidewalks to the road, he noticed something else that caused him concern.

“I thought, ‘Golly, these things are missing!’” Gretz said.

The realizations marked the beginning of Gretz’s quest to make sure sidewalks are up to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, not only in his neighborhood, but across the entire county. What followed were a couple of years of meeting with officials, delving into federal and local law, and filing complaints with agencies at all levels of government.

For many months, it seemed that Gretz was running into a wall despite his efforts to raise awareness.

But earlier this year, local officials completed a self-evaluation that found roughly 13 percent of the county’s sidewalk surface and 97 percent of its curb ramps fell short of ADA standards. Then, in September, commissioners adopted a 10-year plan, estimated to cost about $9.1 million, to bring the sidewalks and ramps into compliance with federal law. As county commissioners were voting on the plan, they thanked Gretz for bringing the problems to light.

Gretz said the advocacy work felt natural to him as a retired educator; he spent years working with students, both in high school and at the college level. Now, he was advocating for people with disabilities, whose needs he understood more deeply because of the disease he had developed.

“Until a person starts to experience changes in their abilities to walk and run … I think it’s more difficult to understand exactly where the disabled are coming from,” he said.

Tex Lanier, another Villages of Urbana resident, said he picked up on some of the same problems Gretz identified several years ago. Lanier recalled watching one man in a wheelchair trying to navigate a sidewalk and pausing when he came to a street crossing with no ramp.

“He couldn’t figure out how to get down this curb. There was no way for him,” Lanier said. “So, he turned around to go home.”

Lanier accompanied Gretz to meet with county officials but said he didn’t pursue the issue with the same intensity as his neighbor.

“Sometimes, he drives me crazy,” Lanier said of Gretz. “But I admire him because he’s passionate about this, and he doesn’t give up. … He hammers away at it.”

Gretz said he is happy with the outcome of his efforts, even if the fix does come with a roughly $9 million price tag. Some county taxpayers might be upset about the expensive project, but Gretz said he thinks most people would consider it worthwhile.

“Every one of us at some point in our lives is likely to be disabled,” he said. “I think if you put it in personal terms, most people understand, you would hope.”

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Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com

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