by Maureen Aylward
As producer and host of Cape Ann Report, it is my role to identify relevant and important topics to cover and find guests who have the expertise to talk about the issues of concern to our communities. This Cape Ann Report is as close to a perfect show. My guests covered all angles of the accessibility topic and offered insightful perspectives, from advocacy to municipal upgrades to accessibility from a user who uses a wheelchair and an architect who is redesigning his home to age in place. For this Cape Ann Report on accessibility issues in Rockport, my guests were: Joe Parisi, Rockport DPW Director; Leo Jeghelian, Rockport resident; Lisa Orgettas, Director, Disability Resource Center; and Bob Heineman, Gloucester-based architect.
Maureen Aylward (MA): Accessibility is an important subject, and accessibility not only for people with disabilities, but for all. And since we’re focusing on Rockport, Joe, I’m going to start with you as the DPW director. Accessibility inside homes can be done through work with architects, but on the roads and sidewalks it is a different story. Tell me more about what the DPW in Rockport is doing to improve accessibility.
Joe Parisi (JP): We’ve done a number of road improvements throughout Rockport. With each road improvement, we focus on improvements to the sidewalks. And we’ve done a number of sidewalk upgrades connecting from the school right into downtown, around Five Corners and into Granite Street. We have handicap ramps that are helping with mobility issues. And we hope to do more of that. We have a few Complete Street projects that we’re looking to do. There are four projects that we have concept plans on, but the idea is to create improvements for mobility for handicap ramps to improve accessibility. We will be doing our first one at the corner of Main and Beach Streets and down at the Legion and Back Beach.
MA: That’s great. Is Complete Streets a Massachusetts as a state program?
JP: It’s a state-funded grant program. We have a list of projects that we hope to do. We have at least two or three that are upfront, but there are probably 10 or 12 of them that we could do and we will go through our list over time.
MA: Leo, certainly you’re using the streets, and I wanted to ask you what your experience has been as a Rockport resident and using some of these new improvements. (Note to reader: Leo is a person who uses a wheelchair.)
Leo Jeghelian (LJ): It’s mixed. The improvements made have been great. The cut curbs, the easy ramps, and changes made from where I live on Summit Ave to Dunkin Donuts or Ace Hardware and down to Cumberland Farms. I can get down King Street to Front Beach, and all those improvements really help. Every little bit counts. Each street that is fixed makes a big difference, and I look forward to getting more access to more places as these projects come online.
MA: Where are the challenges in accessibility or mobility when you’re heading down a street like King Street?
LJ: As soon as I get past the really nice part where the Institution for Savings Bank is, and the renovated curves are all nice, the sidewalks are bumpy on the left side going down. There are divots and you feel everything in a wheelchair, or in a baby carriage, or in any other little wheeled vehicle. On the right side there is a sidewalk but no curb. You’ll see folks park on the uncurbed sidewalk to allow for more room in the street, and that can be very tricky to get by in a wheelchair. I imagine anyone who has a walking difficulty also struggles there.
Then once I get downtown, it’s hit or miss with the shops. I find places where I can go in. A couple of my favorite places have easy access, but then in others I might have to wait outside and have a family member or my wife run in and grab something for me. That’s kind of a challenge, because even a very small step – three inches, two inches – can be a problem in a wheelchair.
MA: Lisa, I want to ask you about that lack of access, because as the director of the Disability Resource Center, which is based in Salem, you must hear about these access issues a lot. The small businesses on Bearskin Neck for instance. Leo can’t get into some of those shops.
Lisa Orgettas (LO): It’s a challenge because Rockport is a small town, and it certainly has old architecture. The challenges for accessibility are large, and the cost involved to upgrade is obviously is a big concern. What we’re seeing is that the population of people who identify as having a disability is growing. As we age, we all have the chance to acquire a disability. So these things become pervasive and they become a societal problem. We provide as much advocacy as we can, because people are being impeded, and everybody should have equal access; everybody is important and should be counted. We should strive as much as we can to make all of our communities inclusive and accessible.
MA: What about this idea of universal access? Is that something that is discussed? Bob is an architect; does this come up in your work? And I’d like for everybody to comment on this idea of universal access.
Bob Heineman (BH): It’s sort of a matter of scale. Owners of newer, larger buildings, brand new buildings are by law required to make buildings accessible, and people are used to that in design and construction. But it gets trickier as you get into smaller scale buildings and residential work and older houses. I’ll give an example of improving our own house in Gloucester, built in 1740 and not exactly accessible with tiny little stairways and high risers. My wife and I are fortunate enough to be able to put an addition on the house, and that’s heightened my awareness of thinking about doorways and devices, like handheld grab rails.
And for others with an older house, it makes a difference between whether elderly or middle-aged people can stay in a house as they age. People may not want to move into a long-term care facility. So I think there is a greater heightened awareness that as people live longer they need to be educated on accessibility in their own homes.
MA: Is universal access out of reach?
LO: I don’t think it is. I think most people residentially find the biggest barriers are stairs and bathrooms, especially access to the shower. There are new technologies and new products out there and ways to retrofit. There are chair lifts that you can install to get from the first floor to the second. There are simple, less expensive fixes to bathroom access. And suction cup railings are inexpensive and easy to install and super helpful because you can place them where you physically reach. Another thing that people install are tub cuts. You can keep your existing bathtub, and there are several organizations that will cut out a piece of it and seal it. You can save the piece in case the house is sold. That accessibility change is a tremendous shift for folks who need it.
When we look at universal access, we look at the physical and caregiving and resources that are in our communities that we can bring in, because people want to stay in their homes. Obviously, to be able to build an addition is a super wonderful thing. Not everybody can do that, but when you look at the small things that can be incorporated into a home, it makes staying at home a possibility.
MA: Leo, you went through a renovation in your home. What was your experience?
LJ: We worked with an architect who mentioned universal access and I thought it was a great term. Anyone who is doing an addition or making some type of modification should think in terms of universal access. We were focusing on wheelchair accessibility, but I think of it more as is it accessible for moms with baby carriages? We have grandchildren now. The ramp we put in for a wheelchair is great for having the grandkids over and getting in and out of the house, with wider doorways, handles that you can grab and turn. Universal accessibility might allow you to stay in a home longer. It allows people who are visiting, whether young or old, to get in and out much easier.
JP: The town is recognizing this as well. We’ve done a number of projects that have improved universal access. The Community House is a great example, That’s an older building that was renovated eight years ago that allows for universal access. There’s a ramp that leads up to it. There’s an elevator in it, handles on the doors, all of that. And I think whenever we do a building, that’s what we’re putting into our buildings.
MA: How do you approach universal access when you are looking to upgrade a town building?
JP: It’s part of the design. You have to make sure that you’re meeting the building code and incorporating what is necessary into all aspects of the design, whether it be ramps or hardware for the doors.
MA: What about businesses? There are a lot of small businesses in Rockport, as we mentioned earlier. So what’s standing in the way of businesses making their shops accessible?
LO: Some of it is physical. There are regulations about how steep the grade is for a ramp, what kinds of rails need to be in place, what kind of turn space needs to be in place. All those things are real physical barriers. A lot of shops are really small and the issue is mostly financial; being able to afford to have the renovations done is always a challenge.
MA: Bob, could you tell us a story about your experience at Harvard University, a story about accessibility in older buildings?
BH: Yeah, I think it represents an evolution of implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act. The first job I had as an architect in the ’70s was with the Harvard University Planning Office. I’d only been there a few months when the ADA was announced. And Harvard, and all the other institutions, particularly with historic buildings, were somewhat surprised and shocked that this was serious and needed to be implemented. My job was to look at all the campus buildings and figure out ways that they could be made accessible.
Harvard was not receptive to the idea of changing the historic facades. The solutions tended to be more toward making changes to the back side of buildings where there may have been a lower level loading dock or access to eating facilities. This became a real problem of ethics where people who needed accessibility were considered second class citizens. It took some time for that kind of thinking to change. People thought of it as just status quo, for instance, we’ve always done it this way so why do we need to change it now? It was a real learning and growth experience for everybody.
MA: Lisa, what’s your reaction to that story?
LO: Oh, it’s typical. I think that one of the good things is that as we have come a long way in our society to accept the reality that we all have the chance to acquire a disability and that our population is aging. There are still plenty of barriers out there, both physically and in attitudes, but we have to keep slugging along to make small improvements, understand what the steps are to get where we want to go, and look at how we can find funding sources to create a more inclusive opportunities for access.
MA: Leo, what recommendations do you have for businesses?
LJ: Businesses could start by thinking about elderly people or parents or grandparents, friends, colleagues, people who you know who have injuries or illnesses. Put yourself in their shoes. They don’t necessarily have to be in a wheelchair. Get into a having-a-disability mindset and then try to navigate your space. Maybe you can retrofit or redesign a store to get a wheelchair inside or make it better for someone with a cane. In the summer on Bearskin Neck, you see a lot of people struggling to walk well for different reasons. It could be an injury. It could be a back problem. It could be a knee problem. It could be something other than a disability, like being in a wheelchair. So think about that. Think about who you know that struggles with mobility in some way, and then how your space, whether in your house or in your shop or somewhere downtown, either blocks the ability to move around or creates barriers to mobility.
MA: Lisa, does your organization have resources for businesses or employers?
LO: We certainly do. One of the things we have is a service called All People Accessible Business. We go out to organizations and do what we call an ADA Light Survey to give a shopkeeper or restaurant an idea of the little things they can do to make their places more accessibility friendly. A typical example is the survey of a bathroom. A shop or restaurant may not be able to completely renovate its bathrooms, but it could put a soap dispenser and paper towels lower instead of way up high. Little things can be done to create a more accessible experience for people to enjoy the visit. It’s going to increase your patronage.
MA: Joe, any thoughts on that?
JP: There are changes that the town can move forward with. In fact, a good example is at Evans Field. We are designing an access ramp for Evans Field to open it up to those people who have mobility issues.
MA: Lisa, another question for you is regarding the cross reference with the ADA and Massachusetts building code.
LO: The regulations in Massachusetts predate the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. And so there is legislation pending in Massachusetts that will address this to make Massachusetts regulations come into alignment with the federal ADA regulations. This is important because right now, if a business or organization renovates, they have to come up to code to the Massachusetts building code. They do not have to come up to code to the federal ADA regulations. Business in Mass only have to make accessibility to the point where their customers have access, but they do not have to consider their employees’ accessibility needs. That means that employees or others with disabilities may not be able to work or be employed at a business.
That is discrimination, and it shouldn’t be allowed in this day and age. The fear is based around how much money it will cost to make upgrades, but it will not cost that much money. There are studies that show that it would not make a significant financial impact. At the Disability Resource Center, we have ongoing advocacy to have Massachusetts building code comply with the federal ADA regulations. But, it’s a dog fight. It’s been going on for fifteen years. We are going to be persistent as an organization and as a statewide advocacy group to push this forward.
MA: What’s holding it back? Fifteen years to get legislation passed in Massachusetts for something that discriminates against employees and job seekers?
LO: It’s all about the lobbying by realtor organizations because they are afraid of the expense. These organizations have deep pockets.
MA: Employers, as you mention, don’t necessarily have to make ADA changes to their offices. What can employers do to be proactive in addressing accessibility issues for employees who are disabled or for job applicants? What is the unemployment rate for people with disabilities?
LO: The unemployment rate is somewhere around 63% for people with disabilities versus those without a disability. So it’s a crime really. This impacts the state of Massachusetts because benefits are paid out for folks who can’t get a job because they don’t have an accessible place to work. Employees or those seeking a job with a disability have the right to ask for reasonable accommodations, whether it’s a visible or an invisible disability because there are a lot of disabilities that are invisible. We work with consumers to self advocate for things that they need and to ask for reasonable accommodations. We work with employers to educate them about the missed opportunities and the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.
MA: Leo, how is your employer? Were they willing to make changes for you?
LJ: Yes. Reasonable accommodations. My employer already had remote door openers and it modified the bathroom to make it more accessible by installing a door opener, grab bars, and a and a sink. Most people don’t think of approaching a sink in a seated position. Sinks need to be at the right height because you have to be able to get your knees under the sink.
MA: Lisa, what can be done to break the log jam of getting people with disabilities into the workplace?
LO: I think employers are worried that if they hire someone with a disability that attendance or performance will suffer. Or they could fear the disability itself. We all have preconceived ideas about people with disabilities. To overcome this, we all need to be in touch with people with disabilities.
MA: Leo what do you think?
LJ: My wife says, “See the man not the chair. See the man not the chair.” Most people do. Once you get to know someone who has a disability, and you talk to him or her, you find that they are just regular people like you. They have the same needs and wants and feelings that everyone else has. I’ve worked with so many great people over the years, and everyone has been accommodating and helpful.
MA: Bob, thanks for the information on aging in place. And Lisa and Leo, thank you for your insights. Joe, thanks for the updates on what Rockport is doing to improve accessibility.