Imagine returning to your hometown after a period abroad only to find that you couldn’t get into a third of the businesses you used to frequent.

This is the scenario facing veterans who return from war with ambulatory disabilities, according to members of the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast who are hoping to encourage more of Belfast’s downtown merchants to invest in portable or permanent ramps outside their stores — a change they say would benefit not only veterans but local disabled people and businesses.

“I see these things about, ‘Come downtown to shop,’ and I’m thinking why? I can only get into so many places,” said committee member Neva Allen, who is leading the effort.

Allen said she has long been frustrated with the inaccessibility of downtown stores — multiple sclerosis has confined her to a wheelchair — but her personal interest in changing things has waned in recent years as her condition progressed, leaving her less able to frequent stores and restaurants.

She was spurred to take action, however, after reading an article on soldiers returning from combat with ambulatory disabilities, a trend that has increased as a result of advancements in medicine that have saved lives but as a consequence returned more veterans to civilian life with crippling disabilities.

Neva’s husband Stephen Allen conducted a survey of the entrance thresholds at a number of Belfast business, concentrating on the downtown commercial center, but also taking into account the businesses by the Route 1 bypass and several convenience stores around town, and found that newer businesses, often built on larger, flatter parcels of land, had few, if any, issues with compliance to ADA standards.

The problems came in the historic downtown, where the Nineteenth Century thresholds at the entrances to many businesses averaged from 4 to 6 inches.

“When these things were designed, there was no such thing as people out in wheelchairs,” Neva said. “They just didn’t do it.”

The advent of motorized wheelchairs and scooters has given people with ambulatory impairments more mobility, she said, but there is still a lack of awareness of their needs.

“When people become ambulatory disabled, they kind of disappear,” she said. “People don’t see them. They don’t think about what they’re facing.”

The survey found that half of downtown businesses were inaccessible. Of those, 30 percent — roughly 20 to 23 businesses — could easily be made accessible at a reasonable cost.

In talking to business owners, the Allens found that many believed installing ramps would conflict with city’s building codes and potentially block narrow downtown sidewalks, but Stephen Allen found this wasn’t necessarily the case with low-profile, permanent threshold ramps, and was rarely, if ever, a problem with portable ramps.

Based on the survey figures, Neva Allen researched a number of portable ramps online, settling on a three-foot-long, steel ramp capable of clearing an 8-inch rise and bearing loads up to 700 pounds, which she bought for demonstration purposes from eBay for under $100.

The unassuming ramp weighs 15 pounds and can be folded in half and carried like a suitcase by means of a built-in handle, making it a potentially ideal solution for many businesses, she said.

As an alternative, she said, businesses could construct semi-permanent wooden ramps like the one in front of Old Professor’s Bookshop on Upper Main Street. The narrow wedge, installed by store proprietor George Siscoe, extends eight inches into the sidewalk, bridging the 4-inch rise at the entrance to the business.

It’s a solution that Neva Allen said was possible in part because the business has recessed, sloping entryway. Other businesses, like Rollie’s — which also has a recessed entrance — have replaced their original step-up entrance with a sloping ramp, but Neva Allen said the bigger challenge is for businesses without recessed entryways.

A standard wheelchair can clear a one-inch lip, she said, and her own motorized chair can make two inches but no more.

The Allens have offered to talk with business owners and give demonstrations of the portable ramp — one of many available on the market. They have also offered to print signs that could be displayed in the front window of a business. These would alert handicapped patrons that a ramp is available and provide them a phone number to call.

Neva Allen said it’s not an ideal solution but it would be a big improvement.

“I think people would be more comfortable calling than not being able to get in at all,” she said.

The Allens presented their efforts to the Belfast City Council on Feb. 1 where they received unanimous support in the form of a Council resolution. In attendance were Dan Avener and Frank Bridges, veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars respectively, who each testified to the need for better access.

Neva Allen told the Council that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires more than she is asking for, but made it clear that she is not interested in wielding the law against the city. Rather, she hopes to work with businesses to raise awareness about what residents and visitors with ambulatory disabilities need, and come up with realistic, inexpensive solutions.

The long term goal, she said, would be to make Belfast a model city for accessibility in Maine.

“We’re a welcoming town and it’s our brand,” she said. “We want everybody to be able to participate in our town to the best of our ability to make that happen.”