Sinagra shows another side to Brookline living

While Brookline’s renovations improved some aspects of daily transportation, Nick Sinagra still finds much of his neighborhood inaccessible. Photo by Grant Stoner.

While Brookline’s renovations improved some aspects of daily transportation, Nick Sinagra still finds much of his neighborhood inaccessible. Photo by Grant Stoner.

By: Grant Stoner

Brookline is proud of its sense of community. Recent renovations to the Boulevard revitalized the business district by widening the roadway and creating new sidewalks to encourage more pedestrian traffic.

However, for longtime Brookline resident Nick Sinagra, current Director of Technology at Bishop Canevin High School, most of the community remains off-limits.

Why? Inaccessibility.

From a young age, 31-year-old Nick has been wheelchair bound and ventilator dependent because of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Type II. Commonly abbreviated as SMA II, the neuromuscular disease affects the strength of an individual’s muscles. The ability to swallow or breathe without medical intervention are some of the challenges an affected person can encounter, while many basic day-to-day functions require assistance.

Despite the varied physical limitations of SMA II, everyone who requires a wheelchair understands one simple principle – there will always be areas that are inaccessible.

“I can’t remember the last time I have strolled the Boulevard. They have recently renovated the streets and sidewalks, but the stores aren’t always as accessible as they could be or as they should be,” Nick says.

I understand him all too well.

At the age of 13 months, I was diagnosed with SMA II. Shortly after my second birthday, I, too, became wheelchair bound.

Daily barriers and inaccessible areas are commonplace. Yet, Nick and I tend to approach each obstacle with a sense of humor.

“The sidewalks – let’s just call the sidewalks interesting. Other phrases to describe them? Very bumpy, very hard to navigate. Lots of patches.” That is how Nick describes Brookline Boulevard prior to the completion of the massive renovation.

In fact, the city’s sidewalks have proved difficult to maneuver, even for the able-bodied.

According to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article dated April 2, 2014, many deemed Brookline Boule
vard as “one of the city’s notoriously pockmarked thoroughfares.”

Upgrades were completed in the summer of 2014. This massive renovation cost a total of $5.35 million. The project widened sidewalks and made cut-outs easier to access, especially when crossing the street.

It should be noted that for a disabled individual, a patchy and bumpy sidewalk should be avoided. Navigating these pathways can be both dangerous and painful. Imagine a human bobble-head, teeth chattering, as one struggles to keep all four wheels in contact with the ground.

We must calculate our every move in order to prevent serious injury to ourselves and/or our wheelchairs.

Though these were legitimate concerns for Nick as he grew up in Brookline, he learned at an early age that his journey in life would be different, especially growing up in a family with two brothers, Ken, 33 and Eric, 27.

Both brothers played organized baseball at the Community Center. Nick often supported his brothers from the sidelines, mentioning that he would have loved to participate, but the team could not manage a young boy in a wheelchair.

So, Nick discovered another way to connect with the sport — by collecting baseball cards.

The young Sinagra brothers frequented a local store on the Boulevard, where the trio would purchase packs of cards.

Yet Nick recalls the frustration he encountered when they arrived at the store for the first time.

There were steps.

Steps are definitely the Achilles heel of a wheelchair-bound person.

“Eventually the store moved down the street, and the new store didn’t have any steps. But for the longest time, I remember I couldn’t get in because of those steps,” Nick says.

This became a defining moment for Nick. He realized that his disability prevented him from entering the majority of stores in Brookline. It became a necessity to call ahead to establishments, ensuring that they were wheelchair accessible.

The federal government finally acknowledged these inequalities. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law.

According to the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, businesses are required to make reasonable changes to accommodate the disabled, such as providing ramps at entrances, lowering counters, providing handicap accessible restrooms, etc.

Though improvements and/or changes to existing buildings are required, the federal government recognizes that for some businesses, these alterations may be cost prohibitive.

In other words, unless Nick or disability advocates approach store owners with inclusion concerns, it is likely that the barriers will remain.

Until that time, he will be left waiting on the sidewalk.

Fortunately for Nick, family remains his biggest advocate. His brother Eric’s memories of Nick’s struggles and frustrations were the catalyst for his future career path. He studied rehabilitation sciences and later created a company, PathVu. Its goal is to promote safe and accessible sidewalks, pathways and trails by providing communities with the necessary tools to improve walkability, regardless of a person’s capabilities.

“Nick’s disability is definitely the motivation for starting my own company,” Eric says. “Part of our challenge as the families, friends and advocates for people with disabilities is to educate others. We need to make sure that they understand why things need to be accessible and how it affects others.”

Brookline didn’t consult with PathVu during the renovations.

Although the city’s construction project yielded positive results for the future growth of the business district, it still left Nick with some concerns regarding the safety of the sidewalks and Boulevard.

“Before the renovation, well, that would have been a dream for my brother to work on because it
was a mess. Even after the renovation, he probably still could test the sidewalks for height, cut-outs to the street, etc.,” Nick laments.

These reasons are why his shopping excursions on the Boulevard are few and far between. There remain numerous areas that are just too difficult to manage for someone with physical limitations.

This is Nick’s reality.

Sadly, the sense of community is not something that Nick can ever fully experience. Not when so much of Brookline continues to remain inaccessible.

As he spins his wheelchair around, a smile slowly spreads across his face and he emits a barely audible chuckle. “Hey, it’s easier to go down steps than up — just let gravity take you down!”