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Victim, officials express anger over incident at City Park

August 12, 2002|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

Returning to Hagerstown City Park Sunday afternoon on another hot summer day, wheelchair-bound Michael High made sure he had plenty of drinking water with him.

Just three weeks ago, High careened down a 200-foot incline, through a wooden fence and into the lake after his motorized wheelchair lost power as he struggled uphill to a water fountain after being refused water at a park concession stand.

Rescued by a park visitor, High, a quadriplegic, escaped serious injuries. At Washington County Hospital, he received 15 stitches in his head and was released the same day.

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High, 32, a resident of Beverly Healthcare of Hagerstown, has been paralyzed from the neck down since 1995, when he fell 22 feet while doing a roofing job.

High is determined that no physically disabled person will ever have to go through what he did that day at the park.

"That day, I fell asleep in my chair in the shade and woke up in the sun," High said.

High said he approached the concession stand in the lower end of the park on July 21, and found the water fountain was out of service. When he asked the concession employee for water to fill his water bottle, he was refused.

"I didn't want them to give me bottled water for free ... I was just asking for water from the sink," High said.

High then powered his wheelchair up the steep hill to the working water fountain that day and as he leaned over to get a drink, the motor failed and he began his descent back down the hill and into the lake.

"I was yelling all the way down," High said. He broke the fence with his upper arms and chest and then hit the rocks around the lake, stopping his chair but catapulting himself into the water.

John Budesky, director of administrative services for the City of Hagerstown, said Sunday that officials were displeased when they heard of the incident. Budesky met with High at the site of the accident Sunday to talk about the problem.

"We are attempting to contact the concessions contractor," Budesky said. "We believe that an exception should be made for the disabled - it's just a common courtesy."

He added that the city wasn't aware of the policy of not giving water to anybody, not even the disabled, until High's harrowing experience.

Budesky said the city is also going to ask the vendor to apologize to High.

That apology is important to High also.

"It was just sink water I was asking for ... I pour it over my head when I get too hot and have trouble breathing," High said.

Hagerstown City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot is putting together a committee on accessibility in all city areas, Budesky said. High has already expressed an interest in being on that committee.

"There are a lot of problems in City Park," Hendershot said. He noted that at least $75,000 has been earmarked for some accessibility projects after Sept. 1.

Budesky said that figure is more like $80,000.

Hendershot expressed his outrage at High's experience.

"He should never have been refused water, especially in that heat that day," Hendershot said.

High's friend, Ginger McDonald, contacted the city after High's accident to express her displeasure with the way High was treated.

"I just couldn't believe someone would refuse to give water to a man in a wheelchair," McDonald said.

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