BROOKINGS – The name might have changed, but the Brookings Disability Awareness Committee still wants to help those with challenges and those who work with them.
They use events like Americans with Disabilities Act Day on July 26 to help spread the message and welcome all who want information or to contribute personal experience.
The old name, which was The Mayor’s Advisory Committee for People Who Have Disabilities, was a bit of a mouthful, acknowledged three members. The group felt the name change would benefit everyone on several different levels.
“We just wanted it simple and easy,” said Mark Sternhagen, publicity coordinator for the Disability Awareness Committee.
One key word was “awareness,” according to Brianna Doran, chair of the Disability Awareness Committee.
“I think it was to really show our purpose of the committee and that was to raise awareness of individuals with disabilities,” Doran said.
The focus is not on the disabilities themselves, but on the full lives that people with disabilities can have.
“Making disabled people feel like they’re important … are just part of the community, the less (inclusion) becomes a problem,” Sternhagen said.
Matt Weiss, vice chair of the Disability Awareness Committee, said it’s about learning.
“We still want to be people first, but all the same, with our new name, it’s still very much about awareness as the primary purpose,” Weiss said.
The original committee was formed in the early 1990s, after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, and it has morphed since then. Anyone can get involved with the group, whether they have disabilities or not.
There is an open seat available now. Applications are being taken until noon July 30, according to the city’s website, cityofbrookings-sd.gov. A student seat will be filled in the fall, Weiss said.
Every person can contribute in different ways.
Sternhagen contracted polio as a small child and uses a wheelchair almost exclusively now.
“Because I have a disability, it certainly brings awareness and passion for it,” he said, adding when he was younger, “I really tried to disappear in a crowd and not be seen as being disabled and not do anything to draw any attention to that.”
As he got older, Sternhagen realized he himself had benefited from that stance, but others had not.
“That was fine for me, but what about people that might come after me?” he said.
“That’s kind of what really drew me to be more of an outspoken advocate is that I believe I kind of owe that to the community,” he said, so he joined the original Disability Committee.
Weiss had a different reason.
“For me, it’s a passion that I’ve developed within the scope of what I do as an architect. I recognize accessibility to be not only a national requirement for new construction and renovations, but it’s the right thing to do and it’s the moral thing to do,” said Weiss, who is a licensed architect with designArc Group.
“I think with our board, we have a range of perspectives and reason why they’re involved,” Doran said.
“Personally, my original inclination to joining the committee was professional from my work with United Way … so I saw the support and resources and advocacy that they provided in the community,” Doran said, adding she has family members with health concerns that give them mobility issues.
“Seeing individuals with disabilities from birth, disease, (and) age, I think has really brought that personal connection … to individuals with disabilities and me wanting to re-enforce those efforts with a community like Brookings,” Doran said.
They said the Disability Awareness Committee’s purpose is to help everyone be more cognizant of what they can do to be more accessible, both physically and verbally.
Sternhagen has done a presentation on etiquette and how terminology can be inclusive or offensive.
There are people who are prejudiced and demeaning toward people who are different, but others just don’t know any better, Sternhagen said.
“It’s one thing to be a jerk on purpose, but it’s quite another when you don’t really realize or think about it, and that’s kind of what the etiquette … is about,” he said.
He knows there are common turns of phrase that appear in everyday speech which have a different ring to someone with a disability, “like saying, ‘do you see that?’ to a blind person,” Sternhagen said.
He also said people who have disabilities say things to each other that are meant to be a joke because they’re all on a level playing field.
Body language means more to people who have disabilities, he said.
“Very often, they’re more aware of the body language,” Sternhagen said. “I know I am, and part of that is because I spend so much of my life not being a participant but being an observer, and I think that’s true of a lot of disabled, as well.”
Talk it out
Weiss noted the Disability Awareness Committee’s monthly meetings are open to the public.
“If people are either curious or cautious about their speech or simply concerned about presenting themselves in the right way, they can attend our meetings and we can speak candidly about how, from our experience, this is the right thing to do. That could be a very good, very positive impact we can make in a community,” Weiss said.
Doran recalled a person at one of their recent meetings asking how he could “go above and beyond” in his construction project, asking about carpeting and layout of rooms, “just those things that you may not think of or you may not see in the ADA, that’s what our committee is there for, to offer those perspectives,” Doran said.
“It was a very interesting and candid conversation where members of our committee were able to speak about things (like) acoustical comfort and surfacing,” Weiss said. He’s creating a task force that will get that kind of information out to the public.
“I would encourage that they reach out to us in advance with specifics of what they’re looking to have us provide our insight on” so the committee has time to do the research, Weiss said.
If they don’t have answers to specific questions, they can refer people to other groups that could help, Doran added, listing resources in Brookings such as Advance, the Brookings Area Transit Authority, Independent Living Choices, statewide entities, vocational rehab opportunities, and others.
The group can function as a good-between, as well, they said.
If someone has a problem, say with accessibility at a certain business or location, they can approach the Disability Awareness Committee, and one of the members can address it with the appropriate parties.
Sternhagen used his own past as an example, saying during college and his early years of teaching, he’d initially find classes were taking place on an upper floor and he’d need to use stairs. With crutches, that’s not such an easy task.
“I didn’t like steps, but I’d do it,” he recalled.
Then after a few sessions, he’d find out the class was permanently moved to a lower floor or a more accessible building. He found out later from another teacher that the changes had been made on purpose.
“He said, ‘It didn’t just happen to be that way. We were tracking you,’” Sternhagen recalled. “They changed it but didn’t make me feel more handicapped by doing so.”
He knows people with disabilities often will not speak up for themselves, but anyone who sees a problem can point it out to authorities or to the Disability Awareness Committee.
“I think we can be a good resource for that type of thing,” Sternhagen said.
“We’re not here to enforce anything. We’re here to make it better,” Sternhagen said, adding both the ADA and the Disability Awareness Committee are “about education and encouragement … More of a ‘Have you thought about doing this?’”
They do that with the A.B.L.E. and Empower Awards, partnerships with other organizations like the Department of Social Services, campaigns such as “What If It Was Me?” and hosting events, as well as celebrating ADA Day.
“We’re here to support and congratulate businesses and entities and such that decide to do things just because they are the good, the right thing to do,” Weiss said.
One example is automatic doors.
Sternhagen pointed out that many people think automatic doors are required. They’re not, he said.
“It does have some specifications if you do that, but they’re not required,” Sternhagen said, adding the recommendations are based on the needs of people who have trouble navigating doorways because of wheelchairs and the width of automatic doors takes that into consideration.
Cities might require handicapped accessible things like door openers and ramps, especially if taxpayer dollars are used, he said, using the Performing Arts Center on the campus of South Dakota State University as an example.
What If It Was Me?
The “What If It Was Me?” campaign is a good way to help people think about how they would feel in a similar situation, Sternhagen said.
“Turn it around and put yourself in their position,” he said. “If it was (yourself or your) child that was having problems getting into some place in school, what kind of problem would I see with that?” Sternhagen said.
“I believe that it goes beyond even disability, because one of the problems that people have is not putting themselves in the position of someone else, basically empathy, and seeing it from their perspective,” he said.
“I hope that’s kind of part of what we do is try to get people to see it more from another person’s perspective,” Sternhagen said.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]