27 04 2008

Dealing with disabilities

By Michelle Kinsey
 
mkinsey@muncie.gannett.com

TheStarPress.com

http://www.thestarpress.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080427/NEWS01/804270322/1002

Imagine being told you cannot shop at a local store. Or travel along a downtown sidewalk. Or find reliable transportation.

Imagine being told your civil rights just don’t matter.

Sounds unthinkable, yet, in effect, that’s what happening every day to people living in Muncie. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, our family members.

They are people with disabilities.

More than 11,000 Muncie residents have at least one disability, according to the American Community Survey of 2005. About 6,000 of those have more than one. Linda Muckway. Kris Karson. Jody Courtney. Jenny Vetor. Carlos Taylor. Mike Seidle. All people with disabilities. People struggling more with equality than the disabilities themselves.

Benign neglect

We didn’t mean to.

“It’s not as if we are intentionally being discriminatory against persons with disabilities,” said Richard Harris, director emeritus of Disabled Student Development at Ball State University.

He calls it benign neglect. “We smile and say nice things, but benign neglect has the same result as negative discrimination — no progress.”

And it’s not as if we haven’t had time to do the right things.

The first disability law was signed in May of 1973 (called the Rehabilitation Act), which mandated non-discrimination on the basis of disability for “any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” It was pretty broad and left plenty of room for interpretation.

Then, in July of 1990, disability law got a little more comprehensive. The Americans with Disabilities Act expanded the coverage for disabled persons. This act would prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications.

Failing to do so could mean the loss of federal funds.

But here in Muncie, no one was making sure we were ADA compliant.

But they know

Dee Ann Hart has been visually impaired all her life. It’s called Peter’s Anomaly, a combination of all sorts of eye problems that meant she had to have her left eye removed as an infant and has a right eye clouded with disease.

Although she’s never been given a definitive reason why, the family doctor suspected Rubella.

Hart spent most of her childhood at the Indiana School for the Blind in Indianapolis. After graduating, she struggled for a few semesters in 1984 at Ball State University, worked a few jobs here and there, then eventually started her own business as a Braille contractor.

She never thought she would become a leading advocate for the disabled.

It started simply enough.

“I just thought ‘What can I do to make the community more accessible to me?” she said. She started attending meetings, joining councils and volunteering for boards.

It wasn’t going to be easy.

She admitted she has run into all sorts of barriers — literally and figuratively.

“I guess I didn’t realize how bad it was,” she said. “But I can see it all pretty clearly now.”

Harris found out just how non-compliant we were when he put together a report for then-mayor Dan Canan last year.

“The city is in woeful shape relative to the requirements,” he said.

He rattled off more than a few: The sidewalks are abysmal. Transportation is lacking. Alternative means of communication (Braille, interpreting, accessible Web sites) is not happening.

Harris came up with 14 recommendations that would “move the city toward compliance,” including appointing an ADA coordinator; offering public entities notices of ADA requirements; requiring public entities to conduct a self-evaluation, and creating an ADA checklist for all construction projects, hearings and other activities that would be accessible to the disabled community.

A few items have already been checked off that list of recommendations.

An ADA coordinator was hired last August. Beverly Evans, who is the human resources director for the county, took on the job pro bono.

City Hall was made more accessible by the removal of the first row of seats in the auditorium. “Before that, we had to sit in the aisles,” Mike Seidle, of the Mayor’s Council for People with Disabilities, said. “Now, we sit in the front row.”

The Mayor’s Council for People with Disabilities was formed in 2005. Its members are those who either have a disability or have a direct link with the disabled community.

“The mission of this council is to ensure that all citizens of Muncie, Indiana, have the opportunity to participate in every aspect of community life,” Seidle said.

The council meets monthly to zero in on specific concerns. For example, the council convinced city officials to raise the penalty for illegally parking in a disabled spot — $250 for the first offense; $500 for the second. Now the group is working on more enforcement.

“Last year, only 23 tickets were given for parking in a disabled spot,” Seidle said. “Enforcing this law could raise funds for so many other things we want to do.”

Going nowhere

Linda Muckway wants to be able to go to church on Sunday. But, she said, the MITSPlus service doesn’t run on Sundays and cabs are too expensive. So, she stays home.

For many Muncie residents with disabilities, MITS is their primary mode of transportation.

Jenny Vetor, a Ball State University student, pays $8 each way to get from campus to her northside home in a cab.

But cabs are not accessible for Muckway, which is why she is on a committee to secure accessible — and hopefully more affordable — cabs for the city.

Until then, it’s the bus or her own wheels. And navigating this city can be tough.

“Sidewalks through The Village are bad,” Vetor, who uses a motorized wheelchair, said. “I’ll take a sidewalk all the way to the end and realize there isn’t a curb cut, so I have to turn around and go back.”

Some areas of the city don’t have sidewalks at all, forcing wheelchair users out into the street.

“Then I get people in cars yelling at me to get out of the road,” Vetor said.

Many claimed they have been injured trying to get from point A to point B. Hit by cars. Tipped over by uneven sidewalks. Tripped up by barriers.

All, they said, because of ADA violations.

Harris and other disability advocates understand that changes — to sidewalks and policy — take time. “But we need to at least develop a plan of action,” he said, adding that this was one of those 14 recommendations.

Clint Bolser, director of Hillcroft Services and a council member, said the city appears to be moving in the right direction.

“I do think the city of Muncie is beginning to listen,” he said. “That’s the first step, having city officials actually listen.”

But will they find the money necessary to do more than that?

“The city is in a money crunch, no doubt about it,” Harris said. “But civil rights are not a matter of budgets. We would hardly say to a black citizen that your rights have expired because the budget is tight this year.”

An example to follow

Not all of Muncie is on the ADA hit list.

“Ball State should be very proud,” said Harris, who became director of Disabled Student Development in 1973. He retired in 2005. He said the campus has long made accessibility and education for the disabled priorities.

Visually impaired student Joseph Hodge, 22, agreed.

“Overall, I would say [campus] is pretty good,” he said as he went over class notes in Ball State’s Adaptive Computer Technology Lab. “It’s easy to get around.” Although he admitted Teacher’s College is a bit of a maze.

He also gave kudos to the computer lab and to a shuttle that will pick him up anywhere on campus if walkways get slippery.

Hodge said that the education he received in the telecommunications department has certainly prepared him to work in radio. He’s just not so sure radio stations are prepared for him.

“I have already been told by some stations that they don’t think I can do it,” he said, adding that he’ll be graduating soon. “I tell them to give me a chance. They usually don’t.”

This is where awareness comes in.

Spreading the message

Kris Karson believes ADA compliance begins with awareness.

“When people make an attempt to understand disabilities, they are more likely to see that change is needed,” Karson said as he maneuvered his motorized chair along Charles Street.

He, in fact, is still “learning how to be disabled.”

It was in 1990 when Karson was hit, head on, by the reality of a disability. A drunk friend behind the wheel landed Karson in a wheelchair. His friend wasn’t so lucky.

“In an instant, everything changed,” Karson said.

It was a new world of chair lifts and curb cuts and disabled parking spaces.

He said he’s learned a lot since then — about his disability and the disabilities of others. He wants to share what he’s learned with as many people as possible.

He has written several stories, The Wheelchair Monologues, which he and his friends delivered during Disabilities Awareness Month. He speaks at schools. He volunteers for every awareness event in town.

“I don’t think there is a better way to increase awareness than by sharing our own stories,” he said.

Awareness that might stop a person from refusing to help a disabled shopper. Awareness that might decrease the unemployment rate among the disabled (67 percent). Awareness that might make every door on every business accessible. Awareness that might just fix those sidewalks.

Jody Courtney has tried to create more awareness in a new book, Living in Muncie, Indiana: Personal Reflections from 32 Community Members with Disabilities.

“Society seems to either pity us or put us on pedestals,” she said. “Both of these are equally frustrating.”

Courtney, who has cerebral palsy, wanted to “give a clearer picture of what it is like to live with a disability and to help correct some of the misconceptions.”

Linda Muckway, who uses a motorized wheelchair, isn’t that concerned about awareness. “I’m concerned that that term gets tossed around so much that the issue of compliance gets lost,” she said.

“I just really want compliance. I want the laws enforced.”

Time’s up?

The bottom line: Muncie is breaking the law.

“Every day that goes by that we are not ADA compliant we are in violation of the law,” Mike Seidle noted during a council meeting.

So what happens if the city remains non-compliant? Not much. Yet.

Unfortunately, Harris said, violations of the act go unchecked until somebody brings a charge.

Groups of people with disabilities have done that — lawsuits have been filed in Richmond, Fort Wayne and Gary. The feds investigated and the cities were forced to comply with ADA requirements.

Basically, that means any group of disabled people could, at any time, file a lawsuit against the city and its non-ADA compliance.

So why aren’t they?

“I guess we want to give the new administration a chance,” Hart said. “They deserve some time to make things happen.”

But how long?

“The clock started running in May 1973,” Harris said. “So, the question has become a philosophical one. How long should persons with disabilities wait for their civil rights?”

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