Going beyond 'just surviving': How accessible is Grand Rapids for people with disabilities?

When it comes to being a haven for individuals with disabilities, Grand Rapids still has a long way to go. However, people throughout the community are working hard to make sure the area is becoming a place where everyone, no matter their disability, can lead the life they want.
When Charis Austin, who was born blind, was younger, getting around Grand Rapids was a lot simpler. But, in the 40 years that she has been advocating for herself and other blind or visually impaired individuals, the city has grown and landscapes have changed. The aesthetics that many crave in a city — interesting angles, outside seating, sculptures and art — make the city much harder to navigate with a cane than the streets of the past.

As these and other changes occur, it's Austin's job, as a client advocate with the Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired, to give a voice to those like her and make sure they are able to thrive in the world.

Accessible buttons to signal the driver on buses are small but essential details for mobility.And while, overall, the city is relatively accessible, accessibility is, to many, not just being able to get around. "Accessibility," says Austin, "means being able to live a full life, not just survive." This means being able to enjoy movies, theaters, restaurants, and recreation, just like anyone else. And, Austin says, these are the things that, for many people with disabilities, are still hard to find.

In a county where nearly 19 percent of the population has a disability of some kind, according to the Kent County Health Department, that translates to thousands of people of all ages running into a myriad issues that make life increasingly difficult, resulting in everything from emotional distress to decreased productivity. But, that can change, and people throughout the community are working hard to make sure Grand Rapids is becoming a place where everyone, no matter their disability, can lead the life they want.

How accessible is Grand Rapids?

To find out just how accessible the city is,  David Bulkowski, the executive director of the Disability Advocates of Kent County, and the team at his organization, with the help of Michigan’s Office of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, recently performed an evaluation of accessibility on various businesses and other locales throughout the city. The pilot assessment's goal was to address accessibility beyond the limits of compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The study evaluated a number of criteria, including parking, doors, restrooms, and employee attitude, among other areas.

David Bulkowski and Duane DeRochey.

Businesses and government buildings compose the largest majority of locations studied, with such sites as restaurants, retail businesses and medical buildings also being rated. While the overall results of the assessment were encouraging, with the majority of the locations reporting between two-thirds to full ADA compliance, there were some areas of concern. "Ironically, government buildings show the lowest compliance,” Bulkowski says, looking at the numbers. Retail and restaurant locations, on the other hand, scored high.

When all the data is combined, the findings show Bulkowski and others where they need to start focusing their efforts. While they were pleased to find most locations on the compliant end, they discovered that many restrooms (including those in five different government buildings) only reported functional compliance, falling short of federal regulations. They also discovered that the most work needs to be done in the area of parking, staff attitude and points of access. "We will use these findings moving forward," says Bulkowski. The study lays the groundwork for the next steps the Disability Advocates of Kent County need to take.

Advocates, for example, plan on tackling issues of parking, with the report showing that just 11 of the 20 parking areas assessed in the city are in compliance with ADA regulations, which reflects a lack of parking spaces, insufficient aisle width, and too few wheelchair accessible curb ramps, among other problems.

“This is an important area of need, since it addresses the consumer’s ability to have the room necessary to unload a wheelchair from a wheelchair accessible van,” the report states. “Without this in place, even if the rest of the location exceeds ADA standards, the consumer will never be able to gain entry to experience this.”

Ebony Fields helps David Covey get secured on a Rapid bus. Another Disability Advocates initiative, the “Aging in Place” report issued in December 2015, took a look at two specific areas, the Westside and the neighborhoods encompassed in the South East Community Association, to assess how friendly those areas are for individuals with disabilities. Here, housing is presented as a major problem, particularly in the southeast, with residents having no options for accessible rental units or assisted living facilities, according to the report. On the Westside, the report states there were some accessible rental units and assisted living facilities.

Also on the Westside, transportation facilities were an issue, with the report noting just two prominent bus stops having shelters and benches.

Meanwhile, another Grand Rapids resident, Aquinas College student Johnny Agar, is compiling helpful information about accessibility in the city — and throughout the country. Agar, who uses a wheelchair, has, along with his family, launched a website called Johnny’s Pass, which allows people to rate restaurants, shops and other sites on handicap accessiblity.

Currently, there are 79 spots reviewed in and around Grand Rapids, with such locales as Steelcase and Aquinas College’s Sturrus Sports and Fitness Center getting major shout-outs for being accessible.

“The Steelcase Global Headquarters building is truly exceptional and could be a poster child for accessibility features,” the website’s review states, going on to note that there is “great parking close to the building” and an “easy ramp to get up to the door.” Plus, there are automatic doors and easily accessible elevators, along with “exceptional” bathrooms.”

As for the Aquinas facility, the website writes that it “has everything you could ask for related to accessibility. Automated doors for entry/exit. The entry to the bathroom is around the corner, so no doors! This is the absolute best for easy entering/exiting.”

The GVSU’s DeVos Center, located in downtown Grand Rapids, too got high praise, with the site saying that “everything” about the center “is readily accessible for handicapped people.”

Other highly ranked sites include Meijer Gardens, the Plainfield Library, Family Fare Supermarket on Breton Road, Brann’s Steakhouse and Sports Grille, Sundance Grill & Bar, and Charley’s Crab, among others. To see more reviews, you can check out the website here.

It's the small things that make an experience

When Dane Smith was small, his Cerebral Palsy made it impossible for him to play on regular swings. "When we would go to the park, he had to watch the other kids, including his younger sister, run off and play," says his dad, Matt Smith, the owner of PitStop Catering.

Today, at nine years old, Dane is cognitively aware, funny and can get around on his own using a walker. But, because of the "tone" of his body it's still difficult to get him into a swing or a regular shopping cart. Because of these obstacles, the Smith family's everyday activities are often determined by which facilities can accommodate their needs. And, if they find a place that meets those needs, they will go out of their way to take advantage. "We drive 25 minutes (to the Cascade Meijer) to use their handicap accessible carts just so he can go with us," says Smith.

Dane Smith and his mother Susan Smith.

The things that make Dane and his family's life a little easier aren't always huge gestures, but can, and do, make a massive difference in their lives. "The Mary Free Bed YMCA is cutting edge," Smith says. "There's nothing like it." With no uneven floors, no stairs, and only ramps escalating from floor to floor, Dane can get around completely on his own. But it doesn't always take a new, state-of-the-art facility to make Dane's life a little richer. After a very long wait, there was finally a handicap swing added to the playground at
Pine Ridge Elementary, which the school installed specifically for Dane. "Now, we can actually say to his friends, 'let's meet at the park.' And we can. It's life changing,” says Dane’s mom, Sue Smith.

Once people realize that a life can be changed by something as simple as a swing, Matt Smith hopes to start seeing them in multiple playgrounds.

This variety is one thing that Bulkowski believes should be the norm rather than the exception. Quality of life can be found in small considerations, like "having options rather than being pigeonholed to one choice," he says.

For Grand Rapidian Duane DeRochey, an advocate who works with Bulkowski, a critical change came in the form of a walk sign.

When DeRochey, his wife, Lynn, and others were having a problem with the time allowed by the walk sign at Perkins and Leonard NE, they invited City Commissioner Ruth Kelly to visit the intersection. When there, they asked Commissioner Kelly to get into the wheelchair and experience the dangerous cross time allowed.  The lawmaker did and then was greatly motivated to fix the situation, which she did.

"A citizen with a disability did some grassroots, interactive advocacy and made one spot more accessible for all, including the kids on their bikes and moms with strollers we saw ... crossing at this intersection," Bulkowski says.

Jocelyn Dettloff, an annual fund director at the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation and long-time disabilities advocate, has been in a wheelchair for 19 years due to a spinal injury and has found limitations around the word "accessible."  

While an establishment may claim to have an accessible entrance, Dettloff often finds that entrance around the back and sometimes even blocked. Unfortunately, accessible doesn't always mean inclusive. "Until you've had the experience of being forced to go around the back or side to enter while everyone else can go in the front, you don't know the value of being inclusive,” she says.

Jocelyn Dettloff.


When it comes to moving around the city, the best option for many has always been The Rapid bus system. And, according to Jennifer Kalczuk, External Relations Manager at The Rapid, their buses have been handicap accessible for 20 years.

"The Rapid works to make sure everyone has access to their service," says Kalczuk. "That's the purpose of transportation." To make the buses accessible, they include many features, such as audible stop announcements and ramps, and they even offer training for those who may need extra help navigating the routes. They've run tests on their various stops to determine accessibility and often added benches and poured concrete, or made other changes, where they were needed. They also offer GoBus, an on-demand service for those that are still unable to ride the The Rapid.

Jennifer Kalczuk.

While these features make it easier for those with special needs to get around the city, individuals with disabilities still face roadblocks to getting where they need to go.

"Unless I have someone driving me, I can only go where The Rapid goes,” says Austin, who has been fighting for county-to-county transit for at least 20 years. She also stressed that, "It's not just a disability thing; it's an economic thing." Having county-wide transportation would allow cities to share business, would bring in new customers, and would allow those that don't drive (for whatever reason) to look for jobs outside of their home cities. This is especially important as many large companies are choosing to move their businesses outside the city and outside of the reach of The Rapid — which is aiming to expand its services with, for example, a $71 million Laker Line that would connect Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University.

The ability to get exactly where you need to go, freely, on a day-to-day basis is something that is often denied those with special needs due to a lack in transportation options. "If you think of your everyday life, how much of it is actually planned out three days in advance?" asks Dettloff. Leaving The Rapid route often means scheduling transportation ahead of time or taking a pricey cab or Uber ride. And, she adds, there are no wheelchair accessible cabs in Grand Rapids.

The Rapid has an open dialogue with various organizations about accessibility, and Austin, and others like her, know it's going to take a group effort to bring about the needed change. Being able to travel beyond the city will require cooperation beyond the city, but Austin isn't yet sure what it will take to set those wheels in motion.   

Communicating accessibility

With all the improvements that have been made over the years, a sidewalk all the way down 28th Street, accessible playgrounds, audible street crossings, and transportation that serves a wide range of people with disabilities, there is still much more to be done in order for those with disabilities to thrive, rather than survive, in the world they live in. And, in order to move past simply living, the community, according to Bulkowski, needs to move past simply meeting requirements. When looking at the buildings and infrastructures that are being built, Bulkowski urges those behind the process to ask, "Are we building the best stuff? Or are we doing the bare minimum?"

When it comes to building the best instead of just what complies with codes, Bulkowski suggests a combination of education, advocacy and open dialogue. The general community, and those that make decisions on behalf of those communities, need to see all of the individuals that are utilizing their streets, buildings and transportation. But, in order for them to be seen, they need to be able to get around. "You always hear people say that they don't need to make changes because handicap people don't visit," he says, "Well, they don't because they can't."

To break this vicious cycle, the city, establishments, the general public, and even various handicap communities need to work together.

"If it's important enough," says Dettloff, "money will be spent on it." And now that Baby Boomers, the generation with the most money and the most pull at the polls, is one community that needs a lot of these services, advocates and the handicap community are hopeful they will be able to attract the right attention and move past simple accessibility into thriving.

Photography by Adam Bird
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