Cloquet man advocates for better accessibility for all
Folks probably recognize Cloquet's Kevin Sebunia from his job as a people greeter at Wal-Mart, or simply from seeing him "wheel" around town in his motorized wheelchair wearing various KISS T-shirts to go with his long rock-n-roll hairstyle. Perh...
Folks probably recognize Cloquet’s Kevin Sebunia from his job as a people greeter at Wal-Mart, or simply from seeing him “wheel” around town in his motorized wheelchair wearing various KISS T-shirts to go with his long rock-n-roll hairstyle. Perhaps they read the Pine Journal article after he was hit by a car crossing Highway 33 a few years ago. Or they might serve with him on the Active Transportation committee, a group that focuses on trying to make it easier and safer for people to get around in more active ways that driving a car across town, be it walking, biking, wheeling or riding on a skateboard or scooter.
Born with cerebral palsy, Sebunia never wanted to be singled out because he had a handicap.
I just thought, ‘Here I am, you figure it out.’ But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve changed my stance,” he said. “That’s why when I was asked to join [the Active Transportation] group, I figured you can sit around and complain about something or you can take action. And if you have the opportunity to take action and hopefully make positive change, go for it.”
Although soft spoken, Sebunia has plenty to say about the state of transportation and handicapped accessibility in Cloquet.
Some of it is good.
Oddly enough, it was transportation that brought him here, Sebunia explained. The Ely native had asked for a rural area with the best transportation, and Cloquet was the answer.
He’s been living here for 21 years now, in a house he designed to fit his needs. The sink and counters are at the right height to work with his wheelchair, and the hallways are wide. The house is all on one level, with no steps outside to get in or out. He picked a location close to a school, in case he got married and had kids (he didn’t). He also picked a fairly central location where there was a lot going on.
“When I moved here, there was a grocery store on this side of the highway,” said Sebunia, who lives near Washington Elementary School in Cloquet. “I could get to two restaurants - Rudy’s and Country Kitchen - without crossing the highway, and a movie theater.”
He worked hard and maintained a very independent life until he was 35 years old and a hip surgery went wrong. It took the pain away but now he can’t use his right leg and has only partial use of his right hand.
“The way I explain it to people is that God gave me a disability, which I dealt with and overcame,” he said. “Then the doctor crippled me.
“It was like I fell asleep waiting for the pain to be relieved and I woke up and couldn’t walk anymore.”
Technically Sebunia couldn’t walk before, but he was very mobile, he said. In high school he was “142 pounds of solid muscle” and once crawled over nearly two miles of rocks and stumps (wearing gloves and pants reinforced at the knees) to get to his dad’s favorite fishing spot. At his home in Cloquet he lived completely independently, getting by crawling, and using crutches or his wheelchair.
Since the surgery, he’s had to use a motorized wheelchair and needs aides to help him with some things at home.
Sebunia said people treated him differently when he was in a manual wheelchair.
“You get in a power wheelchair and all of a sudden people don’t think you have a brain,” he said.
On the bright side, getting a power wheelchair actually made him more active.
“I don’t like sitting still,” he said. “And I can get around better now.”
He wheels around the street at a pretty good clip some days, driving to work in his wheelchair on the shoulder of 14th Street occasionally, other times heading in the opposite direction downtown or somewhere else in town.
“Frankly who doesn’t like to take a walk when it’s nice out?” quips a cheerful Sebunia, donning sunglasses to match his black KISS shirt.
He has a wish list that would make those walks better.
He’d like to see more and better sidewalks in town. It would be nice if the temporary bump-outs would be made permanent, he said. Bike paths are great too, and he feels like the new bike lane signs on 14th Street have made drivers more aware of other types of traffic including bikes, pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.
Still, Sebunia admits that he rarely uses the sidewalks. Not because he doesn’t like sidewalks, he prefers them. But often they’re in poor condition, or not connected to another sidewalk, or maybe there’s no cut-out to allow a man in an electric wheelchair to access the sidewalk from the street.
“A lot of the time they’re impassible because of age or tree roots, and once you’re on the sidewalk, how are you going to get off?” he said. “Obviously, I don’t want to be in the middle of the road and cause an accident, but I do the best I can.”
There are also ways to make a difference other than building more infrastructure, Sebunia added.
Public awareness is one.
“People think someone in a wheelchair is not a pedestrian,” he said. “They seem to think I’m another vehicle because I’m in the road. I have the right of way, the same as a pedestrian. But I also make sure I have eye contact with the driver if I’m crossing the street in front of someone.”
Still, that doesn’t always work out.
A few years ago, Sebunia was in a horrific accident while crossing the road near Highway 33 and the Armory in pouring rain. He’d made eye contact with the person at the front of a line of cars, but then a driver behind the front vehicle pulled out to go around it, and hit Sebunia by accident.
He almost died.
“I’m lucky to be here,” he said. “I broke every rib but two, both lungs collapsed, my pelvis was broken in three or four places. This scar on my leg is because the leg rest got shoved into the other leg, it barely missed my artery.”
His shoulder and his sternum were broken, his face cut and still scarred. For eight days, doctors weren’t sure he was going to make it. Then he turned a corner.
“I healed quicker than they thought, but I had to go back to work before I was medically ready or else they were going to raise my health-care premiums,” he said. “I still have lingering effects from that accident.”
Although it seems insane to cross Highway 33 at the Armory now instead of at the lighted four-way intersection, at the time, Sebunia said the intersection with Big Lake Road and Doddridge was far scarier. Few pedestrians used it. The pedestrian crossing lights changed very quickly and there was no proper resting point in the center of the divided highway. Additionally, people turning left didn’t always pay attention to anyone not in a car or truck.
“That’s another reason I feel accessibility and decent streets and sidewalks are is important - because it almost cost me my life,” he said. “It’s funny. I don’t really take the credit, but after I got hurt, that road got fixed. Thank God it won’t happen to someone else.”
But it’s not just people in wheelchairs who need better crossings, better sidewalks and better access. It’s people pushing strollers, people who can’t walk very well, elderly people, even people using crutches temporarily because of an accident.
Sebunia was frustrated when the Cloquet City Council voted against a sidewalk on Eighth Street after neighbors campaigned against it, a location only a few blocks from his home.
“If it was free [to the homeowners] and for the public good, it should have happened,” he said. “It’s just a matter of people opening their eyes to the elderly and disabled.
“We have all these minority groups that want to be heard, but everyone at some point will become disabled, by a broken leg, age or accident. Good sidewalks benefit everyone, not just one segment of the population. And if you’re going to be in a city and care about your neighbors, you’ve got to think about this stuff.”
Sebunia said he feels that’s part of what he’s trying to do by serving on the Active Transportation committee, and by talking about accessibility and transportation issues.
“I don’t try to be a crusader but I’m going to try to make things better for other people - all people,” he said, adding that he might even run for public office someday.
“I want people to see Kevin, not ‘Kevin in a wheelchair.’” he said.