The Americans With Disabilities Act — signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 — had many consequences.
Some were intended. Others were not.
It opened employment and educational opportunities for tens of millions of Americans with physical and emotional issues. Curb cuts and other design changes now benefit pregnant mothers, parents with youngsters and the elderly.
The ADA also impelled the state of Connecticut to create grants, allowing towns to fund initiatives studying the best ways to promote inclusion for people with disabilities.
In 2006, Westport and Wilton formed a task force. One recommendation was followed: Today our town has a designated official for disability issues (Sarah Heath, in Human Services).
One recommendation was not followed: the creation of a permanent commission.
Earlier this month, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced appointments to Westport’s new Commission on People With Disabilities, which the RTM approved in July. Members include Marina Derman, Diane Johnson, Stacie Curran, LuAnn Giunta, Tom Holleman and Evan Levinson.
The chair is Jim Ross. A successful businessman, he’s also the former head of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee.
Ross is legally blind, and the father of 2 special needs children. “I live this every day,” he notes.
He became a voice for the disabled community in 2012, when he helped pass legislation giving students access to epilepsy medicine when a school nurse is not present.
Along the way, he met Human Services director Barbara Butler, who told Ross that the proposal for a town commission had never been implemented.
Ross went to work. Now — with Marpe’s help, and broad public support — it’s a reality.
Westport’s former director of human services, Barbara Butler, is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.
There’s a reason so many Westporters support the new commission. Twenty percent of the town’s population is directly affected by their own or a family member’s physical or intellectual disability. In a community like ours, that means all of us have neighbors, friends and fellow members of civic groups and congregations with disabilities.
“This is an exceptionally humbling opportunity,” Ross says of his post. “It’s a chance to take the ADA — a magnificent civil rights initiative — to the local level.”
He notes that Westport — a “very socially aware town” — has already done good things. There are ramps everywhere. Compo Beach has a sand wheelchair. The Levitt Pavilion is quite accessible.
But, he adds, “this is about a lot more than ramps. It’s a 2-way conversation between people with disabilities, and the community as a whole. It’s a chance for businesses, organizations, the town and people to have a dialogue to create avenues, paths and bridges for everyone to come together.”
In many ways, Ross says, “people with disabilities are heroes. We can learn a lot about ourselves by including them, and letting them contribute to a more vigorous, dynamic environment. This is not about clubbing people over the head. It’s about everyone working together.”
He mentions education, housing, transportation, recreation, employment, the arts and emergency preparedness as areas in which discussions involving people with disabilities can lead to “logistical and tactical benefits” for all Westporters.
He’s eager to get started. Ross calls the 7-member commission “a dynamite group. Everyone has a different area of expertise.”
The Commission on People With Disabilities will meet publicly the 3rd Thursday of every month. The 1st session is Thursday, January 19 (8:30 a.m.), at Town Hall.
Of course, it’s handicap accessible.