Larry Biondi was growing frustrated. Since 1997 the advocacy coordinator for the Progress Center has been tooling around Forest Park in his motorized wheelchair asking businesses to keep handicapped residents in mind when designing their stores. Until now, he has met with little success.
Biondi is excited about the potential of a new program called the M2 Accessibility Project, which started through a Partnership with the Madison Street Merchants group. For Biondi and the Progress Center, an advocacy group for disabled residents, the aim is to widen doorways, provide labels in brail and offer more attentive customer service. For M2 members, the hurdle is in understanding how to make meaningful changes without plunging their bottom line into the red.
Though he has been asking for years, Biondi said it took a bit of serendipitous synergy to get the ball rolling.
While Biondi was advocating accessibility, M2 was becoming a dynamic force on Forest Park’s main street. Meanwhile, a woman named Carrole Mardis was getting training from the Great Lakes Americans with Disabilities Act Project director en route to becoming what Biondi calls an “ADA pro.”
When Mardis, who is blind, became a Progress Center staff member in 2005, she soon discovered The Old School Records store, which not only was accessible, but she struck up a relationship with one of the owners, Jodi Gianakopoulos.
“Jodi had always been interested in partnering with different groups, and we starting kicking around ideas about businesses and the Progress Center working together,” Mardis said.
Gianakopoulos and Progress Center Program Director John Jansa had already met as members of M2. The result of these chance meetings was the formation of a working group composed of Biondi, Mardis, Jansa and Gianakopoulos. Drawing on a resource called the Mainstreet Accessibility Program, the quartet devised a new approach to promoting accessibility to the business community.
First they decided to appeal to the self-interest of Madison Street’s entrepreneurs.
“It is a good business decision,” Mardis said. “People with disabilities have lots of expendable cash. If you’re not letting them in, they’re not spending money in your store. We vote with our money.”
Second, they came up with the goal of making Forest Park the first small community in the nation to have its main street become entirely handicap accessible. That notion falls in line with M2’s desire to promote the business district as a destination.
Third, the group made the decision to approach business owners with ideas that are affordable. Biondi said his agency was preparing an information package to assist businesses in making cost effect changes to:
Door handles: People who have issues with their hands, Mardis explained, have a hard time turning handles. Replacing existing handles with levers, which can be pulled with a closed fist, takes away one barrier.
Ramps: If the entrance to a store has steps, a portable ramp can be kept available. Horan’s Snug, for example, already has one available in its entryway.
Entryways: Wheelchairs need 32 inches of clearance in doors. If the doorway to a business is too narrow, a device known as set aside hinges can sometimes enable the door to open to the necessary width.
Aisles: Mardis acknowledged that not all aisles in a store can always be kept accessible to people with disabilities. However, she maintained that keeping the main aisles clear of obstacles and wide enough for wheelchairs can be a big improvement.
Shelving: If items can be displayed at a height of no more than 54 inches from the floor, folks in wheelchairs can reach them.
Another change the committee will be promoting has to do with employee training. Mardis gave the example of an office supply store at the corner of Washington and Wabash streets in the Loop. When she enters the store, one of the employees will ask her if she needs any help. If she needs something that is downstairs, the employee will offer to go with her and help her find it.
“When I find a business like that I tell other people,” Mardis said. “It’s just good customer service.”
Gianakopoulos emphasized that the program will be voluntary.
“We’re attempting to provide an easy to follow plan. An online checklist will be provided to each business,” Gianakopoulos said.
The idea is not come on as an enforcer, but as a partner who can help business owners increase their bottom line. Mardis said she wants to avoid the mentality of “drive by lawsuits” in which man in a wheelchair, for example, immediately files a complaint or sues for damages instead of approaching the store owner and encouraging them to change.
“The Progress Center has always worked with the community,” Mardis said. “We’ve done picketing and other things to try to change people’s ideas, but we have never filed any litigation.”
When enough businesses have come on board, Gianakopoulos will create a website that not only proclaims the whole street as accessible, but will create a series of symbols indicating to what extent each business has been able to comply with the ADA’s list of ideal improvements. Similar to how AAA has symbols showing whether hotels have a pool or a restaurant, these symbols would indicate whether Madison Street businesses have ramps, wheelchair accessible doorways, electric doors or labeling in brail.
M2 members are receptive to the program and find the Progress Center’s approach to be helpful rather than adversarial, Gianakopoulos said. The approach is an example of “consumerism and equal rights in action,” she said.
“We’re finding that local merchants are excited about participating and genuinely interested in providing the best environment possible for persons with disabilities to come in and feel welcome and, of course, spend a buck or two,” Gianakopoulos said.
The executive directors of both Main Street and the Chamber of Commerce said they too will lend their support to the project.
So far, seven businesses have been evaluated under the accessibility plan.