Tag Archives: Jim Ross

Disabilities Commission: It’s Way More Than Ramps

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.

Until now.

Jim Ross

Jim Ross

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.

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.”

Beach wheelchair sign

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.

Commission On Disabilities Moves Toward Reality

Over the past 40 years, great progress has been made at the federal and state levels protecting and advancing the rights, awareness and support of people with disabilities.

At the local level: not so much.

Jim Ross is well aware of the work that’s been done — and how much remains. He’s chair of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee, a group that among other tasks helps connect disabled people with transportation options.

He himself has a disability: He’s lost his vision. (That does not prevent him from working in the financial services field, building electronic equity marketplaces.)

Jim Ross and his wife Victoria.

Jim Ross and his wife Victoria.

Ross is also involved in a new initiative. For the past 2 years, First Selectman Jim Marpe and Barbara Butler — the soon-to-retire director of Westport’s Department of Human Services — have spearheaded an effort, with a steering committee, to investigate the creation of a permanent Westport Commission on People with Disabilities.

The new group would ensure that this is a town where people with disabilities — whether physical or mental — have the opportunity and support to enjoy full and equal access to lives of independence, productivity, inclusion and self-determination.

Ross notes, “This is not about putting in ramps. It’s about involving and including people in meaningful ways.” In other words, it’s about creating policies and environments that welcome all Westporters.

“It’s a 2-way street,” he adds. “We want to help everyone here — politicians, businesses, organizations, citizens — have a meaningful dialogue about disabilities.”

Ross says that many people with disabilities excel in many areas. “They can teach us a lot,” he says. “We do a disservice to society by not having them participate fully in town activities.”

Parks and Rec already does many things for people with disabilities. When the beach wheelchair was delivered more than 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Parks and Rec already does many things for people with disabilities. When the beach wheelchair was delivered more than 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Specifically, he explains, the commission could examine the services that Parks and Recreation provides. By looking at needs and wants, it could help the department help all physically and intellectually challenged Westporters.

In another area, he says, the commission could spark a discussion about how to provide housing for people with disabilities.

Transportation has been “very humbling” for Ross, the Citizens Transit Committee chair. “As great as our transportation strategy is for commuters, seniors and people with disabilities, we have to message it better,” he admits.

At an RTM meeting in June, Marpe and Butler took the first step toward making the Westport Commission on People with Disabilities a reality. A vote may be taken in July. No funding is involved.

Ross says that about 12% of Westporters live with a disability (including learning disabilities).

If he and town leaders have their way, that 12% will be part of the 100% of Westporters who participate fully and meaningfully in every aspect of town life.

Westport Mulls Commission On Disabilities

Yesterday (Sunday, July 26) marked the 25 anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

You may have missed it. If you’re non-disabled, you probably never think of it. If you have a disability, you may have been out on a glorious Westport day. Perhaps you were at the beach or Longshore, or enjoyed a night at the Levitt — all easily accessible for everyone.

As a town, Westport has enabled access, supported transportation and provided programs and services that promote inclusion for people with disabilities.

When the beach wheelchair was delivered 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

When a new beach wheelchair was delivered 3 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Now, the town hopes to do more.

First Selectman Jim Marpe, and a steering committee headed by Barbara Butler (director of Westport Human Services) and Jim Ross (chair of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee) are considering a proposal to create a permanent Westport Commission on People with Disabilities.

The group would serve as a resource for people with disabilities and their families, as well as offer guidance to town officials on the development of programs and policies enabling residents to participate fully in community life.

The steering committee has created a short survey, seeking feedback on the initiative. They ask all “06880” readers to click here to participate.

Westporters Urge Restoration Of Transit Funds

On Saturday, I posted a plea from a Westporter who can’t drive. He’s looking for help getting to and from the library.

Westport TransitCoincidentally, tonight (7:30 p.m., Town Hall auditorium), the RTM votes on whether or not to restore money cut (in a 4-3 vote) by the Board of Finance from the Westport Transit District budget.

The $37,714 would pay for marketing ($20,000) and a professional staffer ($17,714).

Some Westport residents have decried the cuts.

Jim Ross, chair of the Citizen’s Transit Committee, said:

These funds are critical not because of the amount but the formal recognition that transportation issues and policies in Westport requires a dedicated, transit focused support and budget. Congestion, parking, commuting, shopping, pedestrian safety, pollution and so much more affects each of us living and working in Westport.

Westport Transit District bus

For far too long, we have relied on the generous volunteer efforts of well-intentioned but inexperienced and time-constrained citizen-advocates to do the job of a transit professional. They have no administrative budget, no staff support, not even a closet to store the transit budget/operational materials that they pay for out of their own pocket. These funds, requested in the first selectman’s budget, are a small but critical  first step in addressing, in a meaningful and intelligent way, Westport’s long term and 24/7 transportation issues, planning and operations.

Marketing dollars go to printing schedules, train station/social media/ internet/print media advertising, as well as special transit-related events like the transit kiosk at the Senior Center, ridership surveys and the occasional free commuter coffee at the train stations.

Westport transit issues and operations are a 24/7 reality. With the growing impact of Metro-North, I-95, parking/traffic congestion, pedestrian/driver safety, downtown development and air quality — not to mention general town productivity and quality of life — the part-time staff can bring a continuous focus and transportatio -expertise to bear on the challenges. It is simply too big and impactful on our town and citizens to relegate this to well-intentioned citizen-volunteers.

A Westport Transit District bus, at the YMCA.

A Westport Transit District bus, at the YMCA.

Stephen Rockwell Desloge — president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association — also weighed in:

One of the 6 primary Planning Directives of the Downtown Master Plan is: Improve Traffic Flow and Parking Management. …

There are currently approximately 1600 retail employees who work downtown. If one assumes that at any one time 40-50% of employees are working per shift, an average of approximately 650-800 employees commute to downtown every day. During peak shopping seasons, this increases to about 1200 employees. The addition of 50,000 square feet of new retail space will increase the number of commuting employees to an average of 1200 daily, with peak season approaching 1800 employees.

Parking is a perennial problem for employees and shoppers in downtown Westport. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

Parking is a perennial problem for employees and shoppers in downtown Westport. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

The challenge that the town faces is to substantially increase the number of employees who take public transportation and decrease the number of employees who drive downtown every day. Westport has to stay ahead of the curve on this issue…

This effort takes a substantial and sustained long term marketing effort and a dedicated staff person to assure that every possible avenue is being pursued to achieve the goals as set out in the Downtown Master Plan. The WDMA asks that the RTM approves this $37,000 expenditure.

Darcy Sledge added:

I have been a Westport resident for 25 years. My husband and I used the commuter bus for many years. It was an integral part of our decision to settle in Westport. My husband and I both commuted to NYC , and the bus was a way for us to come and go at different times so that we could juggle our family responsibilities.

Now I am a realtor. I can say with experience: The commuter bus has always been a valuable asset to the town of Westport. It is a huge amenity! It affects resale value, not just for a specific house, but for the town — especially given the waiting list for parking sticker.

This is something that the town needs. Please do not cut funding for this important amenity for our working professionals.

Transit is just one of the funding requests the RTM will consider tonight at Town Hall. If you want to be there, the only way is to drive.

Or taxi or Uber.

Trains Suck, But Transit District Ridership Soars

It’s one bit of good news on the commuter front: Though Westporters suffer daily woes on Metro-North trains, many more folks ride Westport Transit District buses to board them.

Combined with after-school increases, the WTD projects a near 11% rise in riders this year. After a decade of dwindling numbers — both a cause and effect of funding and service cuts — that’s impressive news indeed.

From July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, the WTD carried 63,000 riders. This year, it’s on track for 70,000. And that includes 3 weeks when Metro-North’s worst woes kept nearly everyone off the rails.

The ridership increases work out to 8.5% for fixed-route commuter buses, and 40% in after-school riders. One of the key after-school routes is to Earthplace, where several dozen students have internships.

A Westport transit bus makes a pickup at Saugatuck station.

A Westport transit bus makes a pickup at Saugatuck station.

Jim Ross — chair of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee — ties much of the increase to the “huge efforts” of unpaid transit directors Jennifer Johnson and Gene Cedarbaum.

“They’ve single-handedly upped the WTD’s game by tirelessly working with state, town and business communities to raise awareness and support,” Ross says.

He also cites a “smart, cost-effective marketing effort” that includes internet and social media efforts, new route and schedule brochures, train station signage, and community outreach programs.

Today, for example, the WTD is handing out brochures — and free coffee — at Westport’s train stations.

The Westport bus shuttle map.

The Westport bus shuttle map.

Early next month, they’ll unveil a “transit info kiosk” at the Senior Center. It will contain brochures and information about all Westport transportation options, from WTD buses to shared-ride services and taxis.

“We haven’t reinvented the wheel,” Ross says. (It’s unclear whether his pun was intentional or not.)

“But this is a bit of proof that if we get information out to people, they realize there’s a need. This isn’t the Friends of the Library. It’s not a charity. It’s public transportation, which is as un-sexy as it gets. But it is a service. Citizens are showing that they want it.

“If town officials really commit to this — if they move from a discussion of ‘Should we have it?’ to ‘This is a town gem’ — we can really move forward.”

As budget season begins, the wheels on Westport’s bus service are clearly on a roll.