News Article Details

Carrie Seidman: Disability progress, then and now

The Herald-Tribune - 3/10/2020

Mar. 8--If you're an adult in a wheelchair trying to navigate a downtown construction area, or a student with autism ostracized by your peers, it probably seems like we have a long way to go to become a truly inclusive community.

But stroll -- or wheel -- your way through a new historical exhibit at the old Chidsey Library that traces local disability services over the past 75 years and you may conclude Sarasota has always had a heart for individuals with challenges.

"Coming Out of History's Dark Corners" -- a collection of photos and artifacts produced through a partnership between between Easterseals SWFL, the Out-of-Door Academy (ODA), Sarasota County Historical Resources (SCHR) and the country's ADA (American with Disabilities) department -- notes the marginalization of local citizens with disabilities over the decades. But it puts the emphasis on acknowledging the role they've played in promoting growth and change.

"There's still a lot to do, of course, but we wanted to showcase people being productive, encouraged and integrated," said Tom Waters, president and CEO of Easterseals SWFL. "They've gone from receiving services to participating to the level of their ability."

The free exhibit (open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays through March) is the result of a collaboration, now in its ninth year, between ODA teacher Camela Giraud's 10th graders and ninth through 12th graders with varying exceptionalities in Easterseals VIP Academy. The project brings the two student groups together to promote mutual empathy and understanding, said Don Herndon, who heads Easterseals adult services division.

"It's always about empowering and introducing my students with developmental disabilities to a population of people who come from pretty much the other end of the spectrum," Herndon said. "Our goal is always to have both populations come out with a greater understanding of and appreciation for each other."

Herndon says the program focuses on finding student commonalities ("They're very similar in their love of social media and gaming") rather than highlighting differences that can cause reticence to interact.

"Sometimes students get stuck in the fear of what they don't know," he said. "We're learning, experientially, how to be people and live in a community with other people."

This year VIP Academy students visited the Siesta Key school and ODA students explored a vault of artifacts, scrapbooks, photos and films at Easterseals as well as visiting the archives at SCHR.

"The good news is, Sarasota was always a very welcoming community," says Lindsay Ogles, curator of collections at SCHR, pointing to a photo of the first disability services clinic here, opened in an airport Quonset hut in 1946. "There was always a public interest in helping children with disabilities."

While the project emphasizes the positive, there's enough historical context to track the nation's changing attitudes. Though in hindsight Sarasota's approach may appear condescending, it comes across as ahead of the curve in recognizing and supporting the need for services.

For example, while the Supreme Court was approving compulsory sterilization of "mental defectives" in the 1920s, the local Kiwanis group was establishing its first "Kiwanis Crippled Kiddies Club." (A disclaimer at the beginning of the timeline apologizes for "outdated" language and terms "which are no longer acceptable by today's standards.")

And when shock therapy and lobotomies became standard in the '50s, the Manatee-Sarasota Crippled Children's Clinic, established in 1946, had already renamed its building the "Happiness House."

In recent years, the county has purchased assistive devises for library patrons with low vision, installed hearing loops, and placed a "Mobi Mat" for wheelchair access on Siesta Beach. But it's also utterly failed some special education students in the public school system and, in areas that truly count but are onerous and expensive, has fallen short of the gold standard.

At a City Commission meeting last December, a disability advocate disparaged a local lack of compliance with ADA mandates. At that time commissioners agreed to conduct a comprehensive audit, but I hadn't heard anything about it since.

So I placed a call to Sarah Warren with the city attorney's office to see if things were moving forward. As it happened, I caught her just as she was putting the finishing touches on a 15-page Request for Proposal painstakingly put together over the past few months by more than a dozen city staff members. Outside firms with experience conducting ADA audits will begin bidding before the end of the month.

"It was a lengthy process and I'm glad to see it's finally finished," Warren said. "It's going to be great to have an outside firm that really knows the law to be our experts and identify our problems."

The RFP includes five phases of assessment, starting with streets, parking, garages, parks and buildings in the downtown district, and continuing through events, programs and activities. Warren estimated the first phase would begin within three or four months.

Though in this case the city's hand was forced rather than raised, let's hope it's a first step in righting our reputation as a community that embraces, encourages and facilitates equal access and opportunity for all its residents.

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at carrie.seidman@heraldtribune.com or 941-361-4834. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.

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