On October 22, Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC) awarded the City of Grand Rapids its 2018 Invest in Ability Award during the Invest in Ability Dinner at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. The award recognizes an organization or individual who has advanced and improved the lives of local people with disabilities.
“Our entire City staff is committed to becoming more and more accessible for persons with disabilities,” says Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. “While we know there is always more work to be done, we are extremely honored to receive this prestigious award.”
Dave Bulkowski, executive director of DAKC, says, “We are thrilled to recognize the great work of the City of Grand Rapids. They have made intentional choices, and put plans to action, while constantly seeking new knowledge and best practices. This work is a journey, and they are an outstanding partner.”
Bulkowski notes that while racial and gender equity are popular agenda items across the country, concerns about creating equity for people with disabilities often takes a back seat. He explains that when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, accessibility was viewed as “slapping a ramp on it.” DAKC has been a local force in helping that mindset evolve into one of true equity.
“If it’s not accessible, it’s not going to be inviting and if it’s not inviting, it won’t be welcoming,” he says. “It’s absolutely critical to start with accessible. Then, we can worry about ‘Are we inviting everybody to the table, or to the conversation, or to the party?’ Once we invite them, then we have to ask the question, ‘Do we really welcome them?’”
When people with disabilities are unable to access a public space — for example, have to use a back entrance or reroute their path when outdoor restaurant seating blocks a sidewalk — the result is not only inconvenience but also a confirmation that they are unwelcome, second-class citizens. Bulkowski explains that people without disabilities have trouble grasping the hardships that inaccessible places put on those with disabilities, until they or one of their family members experience it.
“One of the challenges of disabilities is you don’t ‘get it’ until you get it. We keep looking to educate and create more ambassadors who get it,” he says. “We’ve been talking with the City and other municipalities for 37 years now. The City of Grand Rapids gets it. A small example of how the City is getting it was seen at the ribbon cutting at the new playground where kids of all abilities can play together on one big fun playground.”
Other examples of how the City of Grand Rapids gets it include recruiting people with disabilities to sit on planning committees and participating in activities that help those without disabilities to experience the world through a different lens.
“Over the last decade, the City has been extremely intentional that a person with a disability is a part of every planning effort. And, we’ve done creative things," says Bulkowski. "When the City was doing the initial Michigan Street Corridor planning, we put blindfolds on some of the planning committee — it was literally the blind leading the blind. We had them cross Michigan Street. It was scary for them. Today, you see wider sidewalks, better curb cuts, and better crossings there.”
Other considerations in giving the City of Grand Rapids the award included the Parks Master Plan, adopted in June 2017, that has a significant commitment to Universal Design, that is, space that all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability can access. The City will soon break ground on its first park planned according to Universal Design standards.
“This is not a lifetime achievement award. It does not mean the City is 100 percent accessible. And, they understand that,” Bulkowski concludes. “If people encounter barriers in the community, we do have staff that follow up on those. You go to a restaurant, bar, or hotel and don’t believe they are accessible, give us a shout. We also do trainings on how to best include folks with disabilities. We are proactive and reactive —both perspectives.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Disability Advocates of Kent County