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Section 5. Increasing Access for People with Physical Disabilities

Example #1: Interview with Brigid Schwilling

Brigid Schwilling is a graduate student at the University of Kansas who has extensive volunteer experience. She spoke with the Community Tool Box about her experiences as a person with a disability volunteering with a variety of nonprofit organizations and community health agencies. To learn more about the agencies at which she volunteers, just follow the links within the interview.

CTB: Can you tell me about your experience with organizations that do community health and development work, either as a volunteer or a staff member or as a recipient of services?

Schwilling: Well, I do a lot of volunteer work. Most of the places where I have volunteered are accessible. Some organizations, due to lack of funding, haven't been able to make it accessible. And I'd say in a case like that I'm pretty understanding, but I've also been in situations where other organizations have not been willing to do things just because they're being jerks.

I do think it's important to consider accessibility for your staff as well as your clients. I volunteer for places like the Kansas Audio-Reader Network and Independence, Inc. and they're accessible. But I remember when I first started volunteering for Audio-Reader the doors weren't constructed so that a person with a wheelchair could go over. And they had to fix that, mainly because I complained about it.

One thing I have found in terms of accessibility is that people that are designing these things often just don't think. When people are thinking about accessibility issues, if they don't have employees (who are disabled), they need to get themselves a wheelchair and get in it and try navigating around the facility in that wheelchair. Can they make it through the door? Can they get into the bathroom? Are they able to use the toilet? Are they able to get behind their desk? Or if they want to transfer to a chair, do they have room to do that?

CTB: In terms of the places you volunteer, can you tell me a little bit more about what kind of accommodations they'd need to make in order to make it more possible to volunteer there?

Schwilling: Taking Headquarters [a telephone and walk-in crisis counseling center where Schwilling volunteers] for example, if they were going to make their present location more accessible, they would need to have a ramp, either at the front door or the back door. If they did it in the back door, they'd have to widen the back door. I don't have to take my scooter, but if I did, that's what I'd need. Even if I didn't want to take my scooter, a ramp would be a lot more convenient, because those steps in the back are really narrow, and in bad weather both the steps in the front and the back can be slick.

And I know that there is an upstairs area and they don't have an elevator, but what they do is they make an effort to accommodate their staff downstairs, so that works. And the downstairs bathroom is really nice and roomy, but if you were going to accommodate a person in a wheelchair, you would want to widen its door and get rid of things being stored in there that block parts of the floor.

CTB: So it's not just a matter of having it built the right way--you also have to maintain it.

Schwilling: I want to make it clear, I know they're doing the best they can, and I'm really appreciative of how they accommodate me in what ways they can.

CTB: Well that's actually the other thing I thought maybe you could talk about--that accessibility is more than physical stuff, it's also attitude and language. Could you tell me what kind of attitude you look for when you're thinking about volunteering some place, and if you have any anecdotes about things that have been said to you or the way people have dealt with you?

Schwilling: Well, as a volunteer or a paid employee, one of the things I do look for is whether they're willing to work with my needs. And to be honest with you, sometimes as a person with a disability it's really tempting for me to want to say, "I don't have any special needs!" because I feel like some people do look at being disabled as a disadvantage. But I just have to find those people that don't see it that way, that see I have some unique needs, but I also can offer a lot. And I feel like Headquarters has been good about that. In terms of their attitude, on occasions when I couldn't get there because of transportation, they've been great about getting somebody else to work for me. That's not an ideal thing, but it has happened, and they do understand that. And in terms of scheduling, I have to schedule my rides literally a week in advance, so I've worked out something with the scheduler where I can just say, "Okay, on this particular week, I'd like to work this shift." And they schedule me for that shift. If it doesn't work for them, they tell me with plenty of advance notice. But that's something they don't do for everyone. So that's an example of taking my needs into account, because I can't just jump in car and be there in 15 minutes. I have to plan it out so that I have a ride.

So they're very accommodating to what I need. That allows me to give them what they need. Beyond the whole ride thing, I have a service dog, and he has blankets that he lays on when he's there, and they let me keep his blankets there under the desk. And I know that he sheds, and they tolerate that too. And also, I notice that when I am there, if I need help with something or if I look like I need help with something, the staff and other volunteers are great about offering to help - like getting a file for me or if it's faster for them to jump and answer the door. I find that to be a very accommodating environment.

I've been in environments that were not accommodating, and ended up being a failure for me. For example, my undergrad degree is in elementary ed, and when I got to my student teaching, I got placed with a teacher who was very negative and she didn't want me there and she wasn't helpful at all.

CTB: What kinds of things happened?

Schwilling: Well, I was having a lot of physical problems, and when you're having physical problems it's hard to concentrate on what you need to do. And so I was having problems, and she didn't try to make anything easier or in any way ask what she could do to help me make it a successful experience. I don't expect people to do things for me because that's just real life--you have to be able to be an asset to whatever organization you're working for--but she was unwilling to do absolutely anything, and her attitude made it harder for me.

CTB: It sounds like her attitude was the real roadblock to accessibility there.

Schwilling: The school itself had maybe one accessible door, but I didn't have my scooter at the time. So to me the issue wasn't accessibility in terms of the physical, but it wasn't accessible in terms of attitude. I ended up from actually withdrawing from the program. That was my choice, but like I said it was such a negative experience, and she had told me at one point that the only reason she accepted me as a student teacher was because she wanted my dog in her classroom.

CTB: That's so demeaning!

Schwilling: Yeah, my confidence took a shot, and I really questioned who I was and what I was doing, and it's really scary as a person with a disability when I think about employment because I never want to be in that position again. I'm studying social welfare right now, and I'm going to be doing practica in a year, and that's one thing I have to keep in mind; not only is the facility accessible, but what are their attitudes? Are they going to believe in me? Are they going to encourage me?

CTB: What would be a few tips you'd give people about their attitudes?

Schwilling: A tip I would give to employers would be to keep an open mind. So many people see people with disabilities and they automatically assume that they can't do something. Don't assume that. Keep an open mind, sit down and talk with the person, and talk to them about their capabilities. Most people with disabilities are not going to be offended by talking about their disability or what their needs are or what their capabilities are. And assure them that if they have any needs that need to be addressed that you're willing to talk with them about it and try to make accommodations. Just like with any person, there are people with disabilities that take advantage  - some people, if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile. But most people with disabilities will just ask for what they need because they want to succeed just like somebody who doesn't have a disability. They want to have a job or volunteer and feel good about what they're doing. Don't just have that talk once, go up to them every so often and say, "How are things going?"

One thing that really has bothered me in employment settings is when I have not done something right, my employers almost always don't say anything. I wonder if because I have a disability they think they're going to just shatter me if they say, "We need to work on this." So I think that another tip would be that if you have an employee with a disability and there's something they need to improve on, you should go to them and say nicely, "You know, I've noticed you're having a problem with this. Let's talk about it." Get their perspective, and maybe then you can figure out ways to help them do their job better.

It's just like anybody else's working environment -you want to make it pleasant, and it's pleasant if you communicate, and it's not pleasant if you don't. It's the same thing with people with disabilities, except there might be some unique issues to them that need to be addressed.

CTB: Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

Schwilling: I wish in general that people could get over their own discomfort and talk to people with disabilities. I've had friends that have told me, "Oh, you know, when I first met you I was really nervous. I could see your disability and now I know you so well I don't even see it." I'm just like everybody else; I have dreams, desires, goals, and people with disabilities just want other people to talk to them, to treat them like normal human beings instead of assuming that they can't do things. Even if you're feeling uncomfortable, take a chance and talk to them, and you're going to find that you're talking with somebody that you have a lot in common with. And I think that if employers did that, it would be so much better.

I do have an anecdote I want to share with you... I had a friend with cerebral palsy, very smart, who's studying to be a lawyer. He was applying for this job, and they set up an interview with him. So he gets ready for his interview, and before he goes to his interview he checks his mail. In the mail there was a letter from this place he was going to go interview at that said, "Thank you for your interview, but we've decided to accept somebody else."

CTB: Before he'd even gone?


Example #2: A Warrior’s Workout

Dave Vobora challenges wounded vets to push themselves beyond what they believe could ever be possible. He separates himself from other trainers, as he doesn’t use sophisticated equipment specifically designed for rehabilitation programs. Many workouts are improvised activities involving balancing pipes filled with water, flipping giant truck tires, standing on modified surfboards, and hauling a sled stacked with weights – all to the deafening bass of rock and rap music. Vobora who is in fact not a certified trainer possesses two important traits that enable him to train disabled veterans: a strong desire to help, and the ability to put a smile on his client’s faces as they perform feats that most four-limbed people would find impossible.

Read more about A Warrior's Workout.

Contributed by Lia Thompson, University of Kansas, Community Tool Box Intern.


Example #3: Employing the Full Spectrum

John, a businessman who had developed a successful document-management technology used by several large New York City law firms, had saved money to pay for, his Autistic son, Andrew’s ongoing care. But he decided he needed to do more. One day, while at a car wash John said, “I’m watching this zoo, a disorganized array of nonsense, where one car’s moving, one car’s not, three guys on this car, one guy on that car, everybody getting antsy waiting for their car,” he recalls. “But I’m thinking to myself, ‘Andrew can do this.’” John thought that if Andrew was to thrive at such a job, it would be a good idea for him to work with a few other young people with autism, and in order to make that happen, he thought it best to own the car wash. His goal went beyond employment, as he desired to also profit from this business. He wanted to set up a moneymaking operation that would prove that autistic individuals could be efficient employees.

Read more about Employing the Full Spectrum.

Contributed by Lia Thompson, University of Kansas, Community Tool Box Intern.



Chris Hampton