Advocates from across the North Shore gathered Wednesday to hear about victories and failures in the amount of accessible housing available for disabled individuals.
Residents heard from a panel of advocates in the area of accessible housing during a forum at in Wilmette. Although North Shore organizations said they have taken great strides in alleviating the strain on disabled renters and homeowners, representatives acknowledged that much remains to be done.
"We believe that everyone should have a physical place to feel safe and welcome," said Rev. Kirk Reed.
Representatives from communities around the area shared both successes and challenges in making their communities disability-aware.
Peggy O'Connor, Highland Park resident:
- Peggy O'Connor with Community Partners for Affordable Housing: "The world 'accessible' really doesn't encompass it all. When [an advertisement] says 'accessible' many times [accommodations] have been made by able-bodied people who think they know what a disabled person needs."
- O'Connor, whose husband is disabled, said even simple things can improve access such as a store creating wider aisles so a person in a wheelchair isn't getting hit in the face by low-hanging products.
- One giant leap Highland Park has made was the establishment of a community land trust that purchases homes and rehabilitates them. O'Connor said the city holds the land and charges residents only a couple of bucks for renting the property so they can focus on the cost of living in the home.
Sarah Flax, Evanston resident:
- Sarah Flax, grants administrator for the city: "We've got a long way to go. But we've installed lifts, we've installed ramps, we've put in one of those cool wheel-the-chair-right-in showers."
J.J. Hanley, founder of J.J.'s List:
- About the organization: J.J.'s List is an online community where people can write reviews that grade businesses on how accessible they are to disabled people. "It's a way of harnessing the power of the social web to create a consolidated consumer voice that says 'we will patronize places that make disability services a part of what they do,'" Hanley said.
- Challenges: Awareness. Hanley wants to make communities disability-aware and help officials realize that people with disabilities aren't burdens or charity cases, but contributing members of society.
- Solutions: "We can interact directly with officials to change the laws that hinder people with disabilities," Hanley said. She also wanted to see more businesses hiring disabled employees, which provides jobs and allows individuals with disabilities to participate in the economic growth of the community. It also creates an incentive for customers.
- "Businesses that hire people with disabilities are participating in the good of the community," Hanley said, adding that disabled individuals and their families have a discretionary spending power that tops $200 billion annually. "I would rather give them my business than anywhere else."
Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities :
- About the organization: Tamley was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2005, making her position a cabinet-level office—something very few major American cities have. Tamley's office provides services to disabled Chicago residents, it educates people about misconceptions and barriers faced by the disabled, it works on policy and legislative issues, and it makes sure the city is in compliance with fair housing laws.
- Challenges: In 2010, Tamley's office received 2,029 applications for affordable housing and 1,114 for accessible housing. "Because there's such a lack of housing out there, we're really not able to meet the demand," she said. It can also be tricky to make sure people are following the law.
- Solutions: Tamely's office has included a chapter of the city building code that deals with accessibility. But "just because it's on paper does not mean that developers go out and build it correctly," Tamley said. To that end, her office is also working on permit enforcement.
- The office also has instituted a home modification program that provides developers with up to $10,000 in grant funds to make changes like ramps, accessible bathrooms or grab bars.
Jane Doyle, executive director of the Center for Independent Futures
- About the organization: It started with 14 families who wanted to create housing for their disabled children and create a culture in their communities that was welcoming, friendly and respectful.
- Challenges: Changing conceptions about disabled individuals. "They're not invited everywhere; they're not welcomed; they're not respected," Doyle said.
- Solutions: Addressing problems at the community level, not the level of state or federal institutions. "I'm not saying institutions are bad and communities are all good," Doyle said. "It's not that black and white. But for my daughter, I want her to be able to live independently. Only through engagement, only through connection, are attitudes going to be changed."
Helen Gagel, executive director of the North Shore Village
- About the organization: "It's an organization, member-driven, of older adults who have decided they want to age in place," Gagel said.
- Challenges: "You all have probably been hearing more than you want to hear about the aging Baby Boomers and our preoccupation with wanting to live forever. Well, we've got to get over that," Gagel said, acknowledging that there will be a great strain on existing networks soon. "There is no way on God's green earth that the existing system is equipped right now to deal with a doubling of the older adult population, and most of us are going to live longer than our parents did."
- Solutions: The North Shore Village provides social engagement (potlucks, get-togethers, and more) for its members as well as services, like providing transportation or minor home maintenance.
- The Village also checks out local businesses and makes recommendations to their members. In many cases, elderly people are becoming new customers at area stores because many of the proprietors to whom they previously took their business have closed up shop or retired.