Advocate works behind the scenes to create a more inclusive community

Are you hunting for housing in the Kalamazoo area that you can easily maneuver into, out of, and through using a walker or wheelchair?

Paul Ecklund is not the guy at Disability Network Southwest Michigan (DNSWM) who will sit down with you, confirm your meager range of options, and help you come up with a strategy to find a suitable home.

It’s not that Ecklund lacks empathy. He is just a big-picture thinker. He wants that problem you are facing to be resolved not just for you right now, but for everybody in the community in the future.

“To make lasting changes,” says Ecklund, DNSWM’s systems advocate, “you have to change the system.”

Spoiler alert: Changing systems is neither easy nor speedy.

Long effort to improve bus stops

For example, a dozen years ago Ecklund started talking with the Kalamazoo Transit Authority and the Kalamazoo County Road Commission about bus stops. Most were difficult for people using assistive mobility devices to use, especially in the winter.

“The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires buses to be accessible, but the bus stops themselves were usually just a grassy patch or a mud hole where the snow was never removed,” Ecklund says. 

Too often people who needed curb cuts had to travel, unsafely, in city streets to get to bus stops.

Ecklund’s advocacy efforts started by defining a bus stop as a 5-foot by 8-foot concrete pad that leads to a curbed sidewalk that is safely separate from the motorized public right-of-way. By that definition, only 7 percent of Kalamazoo’s 800 bus stops could be considered accessible.

As Ecklund remembers it, the transit authority thought it should be left to the road commission to make bus stops accessible. Not surprisingly, commission officials thought it should be up to the transit authority to make the improvements.

Ecklund kept the issue before both boards by reminding officials that 3.5 million riders per year use the bus to earn or spend money. It is in Kalamazoo’s economic interest to have an accessible, dependable transit system, he argued.

In the end, the U.S. Access Board stepped in to break the stalemate, saying both the transit authority and the road commission have a responsibility to correct the problem. An agreement was forged. As streets are redone, bus stops are made accessible.

“It may take another 10 years before every bus stop is accessible,” Ecklund says, “but now we’re all working to a new standard – one that helps everybody.”

Upgraded housing a long-term asset

These days, Ecklund is focusing on improving housing in his community, his state, and even his own house.

Kalamazoo voters recently approved a millage to help construct more affordable housing options in the city. The city and some neighboring communities also have won federal grants to add affordable housing. As municipalities evaluate bids from construction companies, Ecklund endeavors to be “in their ears” reminding them to think long term, not just about the fiscal bottom line.

Earlier this year Ecklund was named to the Michigan Statewide Housing Plan Advisory Council – a diverse new group tasked with developing a five-year action plan for ensuring that Michiganders have more opportunities to find safe, affordable and quality-built places to call home.

Apartments now must be built to ADA and Fair Housing Act building standards, known as Type B dwellings. Ecklund is urging leaders to “look long” and require new housing units to be built to a higher standard, Type A, which would be a little bigger and a lot more wheelchair-friendly.

Requirements for Type A units include 32-inch doorways and a 5-foot diameter turning radius in each room. (In Type B units, a wheelchair user typically must back straight in and out of the bathroom or galley kitchen because there is not enough space to turn around.)

Both Type A and Type B housing have “blocking” to strengthen bathroom walls so that grab bars can be installed if needed later without having to reconstruct the entire wall – at considerable expense to the property owner or tenant.

Type A unit doors also have lever door handles or push bars, which are much easier to maneuver than doorknobs for people with arthritis.

“I’ve never known anybody renting an apartment who didn’t want more space,” Ecklund says. “The beauty of universal design (designing spaces that are easily usable by all) is really two-fold. It benefits anybody who’s ever going to live there, and it allows a person to age in place.”

For most people, the process of aging walks hand in hand with the process of losing certain abilities, Ecklund observed. Having to climb a step or two to reach the front door isn’t something people notice until movements become unsteady and require the use of an assistive device, such as a cane, walker, or a wheelchair.

Architectural features like stairs, narrow doorways, difficult-to-open doors, and sinks whose cabinets cannot be modified so a person in a wheelchair can roll under it to wash are responsible for too many premature moves to nursing facilities, Ecklund says.

Optimistic about efforts

By advocating for the higher building standard, Ecklund believes that he is building a better, more equitable community. Will this effort, like the accessible bus stop issue before it, ultimately be successful?

Ecklund says he is hopeful because Michigan has a history of being progressive on disability issues. The state adopted a civil rights act for people with disabilities 14 years before President George H.W. Bush signed the federal ADA in 1990.

Ecklund says the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been effective in improving accessibility in state parks through the awarding of competitive grants. The DNR encourages grant applicants to reach for a higher standard of accessibility than ADA requires and suggests they have grant applications reviewed and endorsed by the disability organization that serves their area before they submit it.

The result: Michigan has more state park nature paths that a person in a wheelchair can experience hand-in-hand with a loved one than most other states.

Paul Ecklund is shown sitting on beach during a camping trip to Wisconsin's Apostle Islands in 1995. (Paul Ecklund)

Enjoying the great outdoors has always been very important to Ecklund, although, at age 67, he says he no longer has the stamina to do as much rugged back-country hiking as he did as a younger man, when he hiked most mountain ranges in the nation. He still enjoys canoeing, especially his most recent trip to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.

Ecklund’s love of the outdoors started as a child growing up in New Hampshire. He and his identical twin brother Phil would camp every season of the year in a vast swath of forest accessible only by two-track logging roads. They loved this rustic playground, even though they both had juvenile-onset macular degeneration, which causes scarring at the focal point of the eye. Both were legally blind by sixth grade.

Paul Ecklund hiking in Wyoming in 1995. (Paul Ecklund)

Worked at summer camp, Adventure Centre

While earning his bachelor’s degree in environmental science at the University of Iowa, Paul Ecklund was recruited for a summer job as a counselor at Pretty Lake Camp in Mattawan. For more than 100 years, Pretty Lake has been providing children from low-income families in the Kalamazoo area with a free summer camp experience.

Ecklund found he liked leading campers on nature hikes and teaching them how to set up a tent, build a campfire, and effectively work together. These were activities he and Phil – now recently retired from a career in college admissions at the University of Iowa -- relished from their boyhood.

Paul Ecklund with his wife, Judy, during a trip to Wyoming in 1995. (Paul Ecklund)

He also liked Michigan enough to accept a full-time job after graduation at the Adventure Centre at Pretty Lake, which is across the lake from the summer camp. The Adventure Centre offers high ropes and low ropes courses, climbing towers and other activities to groups of older children and adults.

While the goal of some groups is purely recreation, cooperative exercises are also held to help groups hone teamwork and communication skills, says Ecklund, who started as a facilitator and became the Adventure Centre’s education director. Most participants walk away with increased social and emotional awareness, he adds.

After 19 years at the Adventure Centre, Ecklund realized that his peripheral vision was deteriorating, and he could no longer guarantee that he could see people as they transferred from one station to another on the high ropes course.

Sadly, he decided it was time to take his career in a new direction.

At that juncture, Ecklund finished a master’s degree in psychology at Western Michigan University, then worked under a licensed psychologist for a couple of years to become a limited license psychologist.

In 2003 Ecklund was hired by Disability Network Southwest Michigan to advocate for systemic changes that would make life better for people with disabilities. He is also one of the agency’s certified ADA coordinators. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ecklund works two days a week in a DNSWM office and three days from home.

Ecklund’s low vision is usually difficult for others to notice. He doesn’t need to use a cane to find his way. He can pull a glass out of a cupboard, or put it in the dishwasher, as nimbly as someone with 20/20 vision.

His disability is only apparent when he’s reading. He needs to magnify text, use a mechanical screen reader, or have someone read to him out loud. With those simple accommodations, he has earned a high school diploma and undergraduate and graduate college degrees, and has had two long and productive careers.

But before Ecklund starts thinking seriously about retirement, he’s planning to modify the front door of the ranch house in Portage where he and Judy Whitehurst, a licensed social worker who has been his wife for 34 years, have been residing for two decades. One step up is required to get in the house. Ecklund knows the time may come when that single stair may present a barrier to Judy’s mobility, or his own. They are planning to change their home’s landscaping so there’s a gently sloping sidewalk from the front door to their driveway.

That stair has got to go.

This article is a part of a year-long series 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.