Absolutely Accessible Kent looks at making ‘disabled’ buildings extinct

Dave Bulkowski, the executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC), likes to say that buildings are disabled if they aren’t accessible.

“A house that doesn’t have the ability to welcome family and friends is a house with a disability, rather than the person who can’t access it,” Bulkowski says.

DAKC has organized Absolutely Accessible Kent on June 14 from 1-4 p.m. at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids to show the long-term benefits of universal and inclusive design. This approach goes beyond ADA and is the best way to future-proof space, whether residential or commercial. 

National experts

DAKC is bringing in national experts to explore the issue of universal design, beginning with Randy Lewis, former senior vice president of logistics and supply chain at Walgreens, who will deliver the keynote speech. 

Lewis was running these massive logistics centers for the drugstore chain when he started to think about how to create space in his work environment for people with autism, like his son. The more the company worked to include his son, the more they found everyone’s productivity went up. One example was as simple as enlarging the small screen and the buttons on it to pick up orders.

“Creating an inclusive environment pays huge positive dividends. It's not just the right thing to do from a social perspective. It is the right thing to do from a business perspective,” says Bukowski.

Other presenters include Noam Platt, a certified health care architect, and Steve Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist.

Platt is the founder of MakeGood, a 501c3 organization that designs assistive technology for people globally. He is an award-winning specialist in producing technology for the disability community. Platt will detail how architects can play exciting and important roles in new realms of adaptive product design, fueled by transformative technologies within maker communities.  

Wright has nearly four decades of experience in covering urban design, planning, architecture, and Universal Design. He will give a highly visual presentation about Universal Design as a powerful approach to creating places that are welcoming and accessible to all. Attendees will learn from concrete examples of good, bad, and ugly accessible designs in neighborhoods, parks, plazas, sidewalks, crosswalks, transit stops, buildings, and other elements of the built environment.  

Homes without disabilities

There’s a growing interest in making both residences and workplaces accessible. Bulkowski recently pitched the idea of universal design to building developers at the Building Michigan Communities conference, sponsored by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). 

“The pitch was to hire us and our partners, Display Network Michigan, around the state to help you design homes that don't have disabilities. And we won. That was the No. one idea that people wanted to steal,” says Bulkowski.

The Grand Rapids-based DAKC has 14 nonprofit siblings around the state, part of Disability Network Michigan. One in four people in the U.S. has a disability, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“We help people with disabilities set goals for their own lives and knock down the barriers between here and there. We do systems change work, which is this whole Absolutely Accessible Kent,” Bulkowski says.

He adds there’s a tendency to label those with disabilities with the phrase “most vulnerable,” which immediately evokes pity. A more accurate description is ‘the most excluded,’” says Bulkowski, noting that people with disabilities often can't go somewhere because the bus doesn't go there because there's no accessible bathroom or accessible doorway. 

Commitment to grow accessibility 

Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. has made a huge commitment to address this issue by contracting with DACK to grow the accessibility and inclusion of downtown Grand Rapids.

Research from that partnership has identified what are the barriers for people with disabilities to coming downtown. Surprisingly, it wasn’t finding accessible parking or a restroom, which tied for No. 2 on the list, but the uncertainty of navigating the downtown when it came to transportation, restrooms and even the steepness of sidewalks.

So how are DAKC and DGRI addressing that uncertainty? 

There’s a group of people with disabilities who have signed up as test pilots to come up with hacks for the downtown. They are exploring these issues. One discovery is that the worst place to park if you're in a wheelchair is below Calder Plaza. That’s because the elevators are locked after 5 p.m. 

“So you could park less than 20 feet from the Calder and not be able to get there unless you go all the way around the back. We need to teach people with disabilities the best places to park and other things that people need to know because right now, the uncertainty is a big issue,” says Bulkowski.
This article is part of a multi-year-long series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.


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