The Progress Center for Independent Living (PCIL) took a page out of Community Organizing 101 when they held a three-hour brainstorming session at the Mohr Community Center on March 27.

The issue was the barriers that persons with disabilities (PWDs) have to overcome in order to live independently. Stakeholders who gathered were from the business community and the village of Forest Park. Those leaders and PWDs engaged each other to creatively imagine ways businesses and government entities like the Park District of Forest Park could remove barriers that limit those living with limitations.

During the session, Horacio Esparza, PCIL’s executive director who himself is blind, said the objective was not charity. 

“People with disabilities,” he reminded those in attendance, “have money to spend.” He added that the unemployment rate among the handicapped is over 70% and as such constitutes an untapped resource in the community.

In his keynote speech, Mayor Anthony Calderone recalled the time when Madison Street was torn up in preparation for resurfacing in 1999. He received a call from the Progress Center saying that people in wheelchairs weren’t able to cross the street. Questioning the caller, he checked out the situation and learned that the temporary walkway crossing at Madison Street and Desplaines Avenue had been paved with a soft kind of asphalt into which the wheels of wheelchairs got stuck. He had the director of public works at the time try to cross the street in a wheelchair, and he couldn’t do it.

Calderone went on to emphasize the theme of awareness, of thinking outside of the box of your own experience. He said the call from the Progress Center and his following up on it “opened his eyes” to how they experience the world.

A Power Point presentation on the history of activism for rights of the handicapped reminded those in attendance that what PCIL calls the “wide-sweeping civil rights legislation” of the Americans with Disability Act, passed in 1990, spurred the creation of accessible washrooms, lifts on buses, curb cuts and many other modifications in our commercial buildings and public spaces that we now take for granted.

What the PCIL was aiming for in the March 27 session was ideas from stakeholders on how businesses could voluntarily come up with ideas for making Forest Park more accessible, but which aren’t necessarily mandated by law. One of the five groups gathered around tables discussed ways to make employment more accessible to the handicapped. One person, who is seeing-impaired, said that Human Resources people like what they read in her resume until the face-to-face interview when they discover that she is blind. 

“Then follows the statement,” she said, “‘We’ll get back to you.'”

Some of this, she said, is due to not being informed. Some is because they are not aware that grants are available to purchase equipment that people with disabilities can use to do the work as well as those who are “temporarily” abled.

Ancel Montenelli, who gets around in a wheelchair due to a wound he received in an ambush 20 years while serving in the military, is now a Bi-Lingual ADA Technical Assistance Specialist with the Great Lakes ADA Center at the University of Illinois Chicago. He acknowledged that there may be extra costs involved in hiring handicapped people, but there are tax incentives available as well. On top of that, if employees with limitations are on disability or Medicare, they can be hired as consultants without paying them costly added benefits.

Esparza made the point that earning a salary is not the only benefit people with disabilities get from working. “Years ago I never thought that I could own my own home and car.” He added with a laugh, “I don’t drive. My wife does.”

Getting serious, he added, “Having this job, I feel part of the normal world. My mother used to tell me that someone would have to take care of me for the rest of my life, but now my brothers and sisters sometimes ask me for money.”

Some of the ideas generated from the brainstorming program included:

 Awareness. Many merchants want to remove barriers but they don’t realize that narrow aisles, for example, make shopping impossible for a person in a large wheelchair.

 Education. Just making known what PWDs need can enable business owners to include modifications in their plans to build or remodel. 

 Hiring handicapped people to do work from their home, which eliminates the need for costly workplace modifications.

 Awareness that grants are available to make workplace modifications for PWDs.

 Creating a directory of businesses that are accessible for consumers as well as potential employees.

 Ivory Porter, who sits on the PCIL board, said that when he kept getting turned down for employment because he gets around in a wheelchair, he “got in the driver’s seat” and started his own business.

 HR people need to get rid of misconceptions regarding PWD workers.

 Technology. Larry Biondi is PCIL’s advocacy coordinator. Because of his disability, his speech is hard for most people to understand, so he uses technology that allows him to type in what he wants to say and the technology verbalizes it, similar to the voice on your caller ID or the GPS lady who gives directions.

John Conversa, director of manufacturing for Ferrara Candy Company, was so inspired and motivated by the three-hour session that he declared, “The entrance to our candy store on Harrison Street has a step which will prevent a wheelchair from entering. We’re going to fix that and invite all of you to the dedication.”