Though members of Forest Park’s Disability Advisory Committee credit the village with making an effort to address the needs of the disabled, some of these needs, they say, at times slip through the cracks.
In recent months, committee members have worked with both IDOT and the village to widen and repair torn-up sidewalks at Desplaines Avenue and Jackson Boulevard that they contend are a hazard. They are also currently working to ensure that several Madison Street restaurants with outdoor seating leave enough sidewalk space for those in wheelchairs and motorized scooters to get by.
While committee members and other activists have had some success addressing their demands on a case-by-case basis, Progress Center for Independent Living Advocacy Coordinator Larry Biondi feels that the village and its disabled residents would be better served if there were a documented plan for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a staff member always on hand to answer complaints.
Biondi met last Wednesday with Commissioner Patrick Doolin to discuss such a plan, which has actually been federally mandated for all municipalities with over 50 employees since July, 1992. Once completed, the documents would be filed with the Department of Justice, which oversees the ADA.
Still, over 50 percent of the 133 municipalities served by Centers for Independent Living do not yet have one, according to Biondi.
“We want Forest Park to be a role model to other suburbs in the area,” he said.
Mayor Anthony Calderone said that all new structures in Forest Park comply with ADA requirements, but that the Progress Center has an “open invitation” to assist the village in creating a plan.
“We want to rely on their expertise to give us support,” he said.
Calderone said that though he has met with Biondi and others from the Center several times, a lack of follow-up communication from both parties has slowed progress.
Biondi said that the Progress Center is legally prohibited from drafting the plan itself, but would be more than willing to assist and advise.
He said several Chicago area suburbs have hired graduate students studying disability issues as interns to design their ADA plans, citing Tinley Park as an example.
Arlington Heights had a disability services coordinator on staff who assisted other village officials in forming a plan in 1992. The village was one of the first in the nation to have an ADA plan, according to current Disability Services Coordinator David Robb.
“The ADA is a civil rights law, not a benefits law,” said Robb. “It’s not here to give special benefits to people with disabilities; it’s saying the benefits and facilities open to the public should be equally accessible and usable [to everyone].”
Once the plan is finalized, most villages typically assign one of their staff members to keep it updated and answer complaints, though some hire a new employee for the task.
Calderone said he did not see the prospect of hiring an intern to draft the plan as problematic, but that it would be difficult to add to the responsibilities of current employees on a permanent basis.
“If we devoted our current resources to the plan, something else would fail,” he said.
Biondi said he understood the village’s budgetary constraints, but that not having a plan could leave the village open to far more costly lawsuits. He said the Progress Center’s goal is to help the village avoid such a scenario.
“If it’s between Groov’n in the Grove or an ADA plan, this has to be a priority,” said Doolin. “You always can find money when it’s a priority,” he said.
Before creating a compliance plan, municipalities are required to conduct a self-evaluation assessing their current level of compliance with the Act by distributing a check list of measurements of compliance to the relevant village departments.
The checklist includes areas such as employment policies, local government ADA administration, and architectural barriers to accessibility.
Though the 1990 Act is an unfunded mandate, the Department of Justice has recently offered assistance to communities seeking to comply with ADA standards under the year-old “Project Civic Access” program.
Will County currently receives assistance through the program, but neither Cook County nor any of its municipalities participate.