By Tom Holmes
At first glance, drivers on Madison Street during the evening rush hour on Aug. 24 might have thought they were witnessing a protest march. Thirty-six black, brown and white skinned folks all dressed in red shirts were marching from Desplaines Avenue east on Forest Park's main business strip.
A closer look, however, would reveal the words Progress Center for Independent Living (PCIL) were printed on the front of the shirts and that Larry Biondi, PCIL's advocacy coordinator, was leading the way in his power wheelchair. All in all, people with disabilities spent a total of $1000 at Schauer's Hardware Store in just one hour at the Thursday afternoon "Shop-In."
The "action," as PCIL staffers referred to it, was cooked up by a group called the Community Partners Committee which is composed of Progress Center staff members and people from the community like John Conversa from Ferrara Candy Company, Joel Foster, the president of Forest Park's Chamber of Commerce and myself.
As we faced the fact that not many residents of Forest Park know what the Progress Center does or even where it is located, what the group came up with was an action which was positive and affirming instead of confrontational and critical. We decided to call the action a "Shop-In," with the goals of raising the PCIL's visibility and showing that people with disabilities have money to spend and represent a market for businesses.
"The action was meant to demonstrate that people with disabilities contribute to this country's economic growth, and there needs to be a conscious awareness among business owners that people with disabilities have such power," Biondi said. "The only way to achieve this heightened awareness is that business owners need to see people with disabilities in their stores and restaurants."
Biondi later added the Shop-In could help businesses improve accessibility for disabilities people.
"Can a person in a wheelchair maneuver in aisles? Can people who are blind access the merchandise? How can a deaf person communicate with a business staff if they need assistance?" Biondi asked.
When Rich Schauer heard what PCIL was planning to do in his store, he was supportive. His hardware store is not completely ADA compliant, but it is wheelchair accessible. And I can say from my personal experience that his staff has always been happy to assist persons with disabilities when, for example, they might not be able to navigate a narrow aisle.
"People with disabilities have money to spend," Horacio Esparza, PCIL's executive director, who is blind, said. "It's a win-win situation for businesses and the disability community by making businesses accessible."