Sonoma woman creates Wine Country guide for disabled visitors

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458

On a trip to Chicago a few years ago, Jeanne Allen wanted to go sightseeing while her husband attended a conference, but she struggled to find information on venues that were accessible to wheelchair users.

“I found that the information was spotty,” recalled Allen, a Sonoma resident who has multiple sclerosis and relies on a motorized scooter to get around.

Websites don’t always address accessibility, she said.

“Even hotels don’t give good information about rooms,” Allen added.

The challenge of putting together a sightseeing itinerary for the Windy City sparked an idea for Allen, 60, a former senior project manager for Levi Strauss in San Francisco. She’d go on to create a website providing travel tips to people with limited mobility. And since she wanted to start small, Allen, who launched about a year ago, is focusing first on her own backyard — Sonoma and Napa counties.

She has visited numerous hotels, restaurants, shops and wineries throughout the region, taking notes, for example, on accessible parking spots, bathrooms with grab bars and enough space to accommodate her scooter, and steps that could block access for a disabled person.

Often, she runs into problems with historic buildings that haven’t been remodeled. They have narrow doorways, tight bathrooms with low toilets and no room for wheelchairs, stairways and even steps that are just a few inches high but impossible for people in scooters to get over, she explained.

“When you’re in a scooter,” she said, “one step is a problem.”

Wendy Peterson, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, praised the project. She said Allen, a neighbor, had approached her about the idea to make the Wine Country more accessible to disabled tourists a year ago.

“We consider what she’s doing as just an absolutely remarkable thing that really helps open Sonoma’s open arms even wider,” Peterson said. “This is an extension of Sonoma’s hospitality."

Allen posted on her site videos and photos, including those of trips to Jack London State Historic Park for a performance by the Transcendence Theatre Company and to Sonoma Skypark airport, where she boarded a plane with the help of a Coastal Air Tours pilot and went out for a spin.

But not all visits go well, said Allen, who has received help from friends and local residents with shooting pictures and videos.

Although the federal Americans With Disabilities Act went into effect more than two decades ago, she said some businesses are not accessible for people with mobility issues. Rather than call them out on her site or pursue litigation, she said she brings up the problems to the businesses and waits for them to fix them before listing them on her site as good places to visit. She hopes highlighting compliant locations will encourage others to pay more attention to accessibility, particularly as baby boomers age and require walkers, wheelchairs and motorized scooters to get around.

Ben Stone, executive director of Sonoma County’s Economic Development Board, also lauded the collaborative approach.

“It’s leading by example,” he said, adding that businesses should start paying attention to the needs of disabled and aging tourists.

One in three Americans are 50 years or older, according to AARP’s Livable Communities, which has been pushing for more U.S. cities and towns to provide “age-friendly” housing and transportation.

A recent Sonoma County tourism survey found that 45 percent of visitors were 55 or older. The most popular activities among tourists were visiting wine tasting rooms and restaurants.

“It’s a big market,” Stone explained. “It’s growing. It’s a smart way for companies to (market) themselves.”

On a trip last week, Allen visited a wine bar and restaurant in downtown Napa. As she approached the front door of City Winery at the Historic Napa Valley Opera House, friend and Sonoma business owner Gayle Jenkins started snapping pictures for Allen’s website.

Allen has been focusing on Napa businesses since the magnitude-6.0 earthquake rattled the region in August. Although the temblor damaged many buildings in the city’s downtown, Allen said she wanted to inform the public that many destinations fared well and remain open and accessible for disabled visitors.

Once inside City Winery, which opened earlier this year and sustained minimal damage during the quake, Allen glided over to where the restaurant director was setting out wine glasses for her and her husband, Chip. The section of the bar counter she visited was lower to accommodate disabled customers.

After sipping sauvignon blanc and pinot noir rosé, the group headed out to the patio where Allen checked to see if she could pull up to a table, which she did with ease.

Then, it was off to the restroom.

“Bathrooms are very important places,” she said as she entered the women’s bathroom and while her husband checked the men’s facilities.

“This is great. We have a full bathroom,” she added as she rolled her scooter into the stall, turned around and posed for a picture. After lunch, she made a trip upstairs to the opera house where she found that cabaret-style tables set around the main stage were accessible.

The verdict on the restaurant was released online the following day.

“The staff at City Winery ‘gets it’ when it comes to accessibility,” she posted on her site. “Everyone that I interacted with was so nice, so friendly, attentive without being cloying. What a pleasant, happy experience for me.”

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