Nicole Kauffman | The Journal Gazette Feb 3, 2024
Anne Palmer enjoys riding the Community Transportation Network from her Huntertown home to her job at The League on South Anthony Boulevard.
The drivers on the mini buses greet her, ask how she’s doing and chat with Palmer while they drive.
“That connection has been really good for me, and I’m not trapped at home,” she said.
Palmer, who describes herself as “visually impaired/legally blind,” was relieved when she connected with the transportation service, for which she has a set schedule for rides, such as to work or the doctor.
“What’s nice about it is they can assist me,” she said. “… That’s important to me because I want to be like everybody else.”
The need for progress in the world of accessibility has increased as the population has changed. The number of people with disabilities continues to grow nationally and locally. The Pew Research Center reported last year that 13% of noninstitutionalized, civilian Americans have disabilities. That’s 42.5 million people with “hearing, vision, cognitive, walking, self-care or independent living difficulties,” it said.
People with disabilities constitute 11.5%, or almost 45,000 people, of the Allen County population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2010, it was 9.6%.
Disability advocates say Fort Wayne is stepping up to the demands.
John Guingrich, president and CEO of The League, said a climate of collaboration and inclusion exists in Fort Wayne and is creating positive change.
Current issues that challenge society are complicated for the demographic with disabilities – employment, child care, transportation, housing – but participating in the conversation with agencies, businesses and government officials makes a difference, he said.
“We know that the best way to advocate is by sitting at the table, not knocking on the door,” he said.
Progress in Fort Wayne
One commonly cited example of successful accessible design is Promenade Park, which opened in 2019. It offers a cane trail for the visually impaired and a specially designed lawn that will stay hard even after rain, so wheelchairs, walkers and strollers can use it with ease. It has wheelchair friendly trails and a family restroom with an adult-size changing table.
City Clerk Lana Keesling’s initiative to increase the number of accessible parking spaces is another. During her first two terms in office, she almost tripled the number of accessible on-street parking spots, bringing the number from 9 to 25. She also pushed for an app that lets people pay for parking with their phones, and she’s digitizing City Council videos and documents to improve their accessibility, according to her website.
The city also is dotted with crosswalks that audibly signal when people can cross, a feature that’s increasingly common as upgrades are done.
“The Audible Pedestrian Signals (APS) have been installed as new intersection improvement projects happen,” city Traffic Engineer Kyle Winling said in an email.
The transition has been happening for years and will continue, he added.
“Many existing intersections have signal infrastructure in place which includes buttons and pedestrian signal heads, but not the audible buttons,” Winling said. “These are intersections which have been identified for upgrades and are included with the annual capital projects from Public Works.”
Citilink is working on improving the design of bus stops to make them accessible to as many people as possible, Guingrich said.
“A lot of those bus stops pre-date the ADA,” he said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities.
New accessibility efforts can be seen in many parts of Allen County. Marylands Farm Park in New Haven, expected to open by early 2025, will have a trail that encourages people with sensory issues to explore musical instruments, a wildflower meadow, a textured panel and scented plants.
Fort Wayne International Airport offers a sensory room for those who get overwhelmed by environmental stimuli.
AWS Foundation has funded hundreds of initiatives that have changed the local accessibility landscape. The advocacy group supports disability service providers in northeast Indiana.
The foundation gave out nearly $4.2 million in the past year to a wide variety of providers, including $75,000 each to Mustard Seed Furniture Bank, A Rosie Place for Children and Indiana Legal Services; $230,000 to the Fort Wayne Park Foundation; and $200,000 to the Community Transportation Network. The organization will use the $200,000 grant for its door-to-door ride service operations.
The Community Transportation Network is for people whose disabilities prevent them from taking city buses, said Justin Clupper, executive director.
The nonprofit depends on financial support, including that from AWS, to get people to and from their jobs.
“They want to work,” he said of the clients. “They want to be engaged in the community.”
Palmer, a part-time administrative assistant, reiterated Clupper’s statement.
“It’s beneficial to my self worth,” she said.
It’s challenging to navigate icy sidewalks or find a suite inside a building, for example. Drivers from the Community Transportation Network can be a sight guide at those times, she added.
“We want to be part of society,” she said.
Beyond ADA: Universal design
AWS Foundation does more than dole out money. It actively promotes universal design and connects community representatives for focus groups in its modern building, said Patti Hays, the foundation’s CEO.
Universal design is the concept of creating spaces as inclusive as possible for all people, making them what Guingrich calls “visitable.”
“Universal design is the key now,” he said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requirements were once “the gold standard,” but now they’re the baseline, Guingrich said.
The law set requirements for employers, state and local governments, businesses that are open to the public, commercial facilities, transportation providers and telecommunication companies.
That leaves many places that aren’t required to be accessible.
“Commercial facilities, such as office buildings, factories, warehouses, or other facilities that do not provide goods or services directly to the public are only subject to the ADA’s requirements for new construction and alterations,” reads a government website.
AWS Foundation’s home on West Jefferson Boulevard shows that accessibility features can subtly blend into an office environment. The building has tables that vary in height, and some chairs bounce or swivel, depending on what makes a visitor comfortable.
A sensory countertop is meant to be touched, allowing restless people to keep their hands busy. Zero-threshold floors let those with mobility challenges a smooth transition between rooms. Electrical outlets are at varying heights on the wall.
The foundation’s headquarters also have plenty of space to bring American Sign Language interpreters or extra-wide wheelchairs, a quiet sensory room and outdoor green space for service animals.
The focus groups bring together stakeholders so they can identify common goals.
“We do them all the time,” Hays said.
AWS Foundation gives priority to its grant recipients to use its facilities, and other interested parties can visit awsfoundation.org for more information about the foundation and its grant requirements.
The city needed input about accessibility at the Riverfront and Hays helped facilitate the process. City partner Design Collaborative had a focus group as far back as 2016.
“I said, ‘I don’t have a disability. Trust me to gather people of varying abilities to look at your blueprints,’ ” Hays recalled. “People with disabilities are the experts.”
Cassie Beer participated in the Riverfront discussion in early 2023 to address concerns about her 13-year-old son, who has epilepsy and developmental delays. A trip to the playground produces intense anxiety, and Beer must be on high alert for her son’s physical safety.
“He’s changed how I see the world,” she said.
Beer complimented the thoughtful design being embraced by the city and its willingness to collaborate with residents. She thinks future phases of city development will see even more accessibility features because of the community input.
“The next phase of the riverfront is going to incorporate so much more,” she said.
The League is teaching people how to advocate effectively for those things with an eight-month course at its Inclusion Institute. Luke Labas, the institute’s director, said the course coaches people how to tell their personal stories, advocate for themselves and each other and participate on local councils and boards.
Benefits to the community
Accessibility doesn’t just benefit those living with disabilities; it can help the greater community, too, advocates say.
Automatic doors benefit people with little upper arm strength or those who have had recent surgery, for example. Countless examples exist, Hays said.
Economic potential exists in “visitability.”
“The concept of accessibility and inclusion is an attribute that can drive tourism,” Hays said.
Ellen Cutter, chief economic development officer at Greater Fort Wayne Inc., said her office is committed to fostering inclusivity by connecting business with resources to support employment for the community with disabilities, including partnering the foundation to educate employers on accommodations.
“Inclusive economic development means working together to ensure everyone has the opportunity to thrive here, and I believe GFW has been a leader in this space,” she said Thursday in a statement.
Hays pointed out that universally designed, affordable housing also could be a draw to the area for aging people.
“As you’re building those houses, plan right now where you can age in place,” she said.
Guingrich and others are actively pursuing relationships with area builders to share information about universal design and the need for adequate, affordable housing. Beer said she would love to see every project paid for with public dollars require a universal design consultant.
“It’s hard to plan for every type of disability,” she said. “There are just so many things that you don’t pay attention to until you have to pay attention to them.”