It had been nearly a decade since I'd seen Clifford Roberts, the South Philadelphia violin-maker, and I was uncomfortable asking the obvious question.

That day in 1998 he was scooping the spruce belly of his 120th viola, racing the clock in slow motion.

A rare, progressive neuromuscular disorder was stealing his strength. He didn't know how much time he had left.

One morning last week we met at the iron gate to his home and studio on Bainbridge Street. His ponytail was gone. The beard now showed more salt than pepper.

He was sitting in a wheelchair that has served as his legs for the last two years, since he fell while letting the cat in and broke his hip. Roberts, 54, didn't recover as he and his doctor had hoped.

"No," he said, when I finally got around to the question. "I don't work anymore. I can't. I need to stand to carve."

But he wasn't so interested in talking about the extraordinary things he can no longer do. He has been spending his time thinking about the ordinary things.

Like eating in restaurants. Or shopping in his gentrifying neighborhood. You'd be surprised, he says, how many places in Philadelphia are inaccessible to him and others who rely on wheelchairs.

"I find that Philadelphia is an extremely difficult city to get around."

Road trip

A demonstration was in order. The door swung open and Roberts began a slalom course through a maze of large blue-and-white recycling bins scattered on the sidewalk. The Streets Department had just been through the neighborhood.

On the right, as we headed down Bainbridge, was the Bean Exchange, a nine-month-old cafe, where owner Mike Armstrong has graded the stone pavers so those in wheelchairs can roll through the entrance.

The only problem is that Roberts lacks the strength to open the door by himself. The disease makes it hard to raise his arms.

"We have lots of employees who will help," Armstrong said. Roberts considers Armstrong a friend to the disabled.

New places like his must make themselves accessible to the handicapped under the 1990s Americans With Disabilities Act. But old places - and new restaurants opening in the place of old ones - don't have that requirement.

Roberts' neighborhood is filled with quaint and narrow places whose charms he can only glimpse from the window.

Giant steps

Wrapped up like a bed with a scarf, Roberts motored on in his Chair-Man. "The Rolls-Royce of power chairs," he said. "It can rise up to the height of a bar stool, which is very important." That places him at eye level with other people.

He glided past Decades Vintage (one insurmountable step) and Reliable Flooring (two doubly difficult steps).

A restaurant named Coquette Bistro sat invitingly on the corner of Fifth Street. Roberts couldn't climb the step. Nor could he enter the corsets place next door, though that troubled him less.

Turning at Passyunk, he started up the ramp outside Cohen Hardware and then the one at Gnocchi restaurant next door just because he could. But Overtures restaurant remained out of his reach.

"I would say 75 to 80 percent of the restaurants in this city I can't get into," he said, and this is particularly galling for a foodie. His son, Efrem, is a chef in Florence, Italy. His late brother, Michael, was a celebrity chef of Southern California.

"I find it an embarrassment," Roberts says, "that this city is so un-handicapped-friendly."

That includes restaurants such as Moda Mia, where two men from the kitchen recently greeted Roberts at the curb and whisked him and his 230-pound wheelchair up the steps and into the dining room. "That's nice," Roberts said, "but not what I thought they meant when they said it was handicapped-accessible."

Disability lawyer Stephen Gold says the problems are a weak federal law and a lack of enforcement. Those who violate the law are not liable for monetary damages. So when the legislation passed, he said, "Law firms told their businesses, 'Don't do anything.' You can intentionally discriminate without fear of damages."

As we turned around and headed back, Roberts listed places where he would like to eat but cannot. At a few he has gotten into heated arguments with the owners, including one well-known chef who said he just "wasn't interested" in making the place accessible.

Stefania, Roberts' wife of 33 years, waited by the door to their home, a former Kingdom Hall. The couple met in Cremona, Italy, where he was studying violin-making and she was a dietitian. Now she dresses him, bathes him, helps him lift the cups of espresso she makes for him from beans they roast at home.

"So now you know," she said of our little tour of the inaccessible city. "It opens your eyes."

Take a video tour of the city with Clifford Roberts at

Contact Daniel Rubin at or 215-854-5917. Read his recent work at http:/