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October 24, 2002

Hornfischer: A long climb for disabled

From: Framingham Metro West Daily News, MA
Oct. 24, 2002

By Elsa Hornfischer / Guest Columnist

It was a long, long climb up, up, and over the sacred rock of Acropolis that hosted the earliest known Neolithic settlements high above Athens between 2500-1900 B.C.

Mythical kings of Attica once roamed the very hillside we climbed, and years after they left a temple of Athena occupied an area inside the palace located there. Wars destroyed, and now, acid rain eats away at, the buildings and the ruins, but aggressive restoration efforts continue on this sacred rock.

Our October ascent was certainly worth taking. Ghosts of our world-class ancestors and mythical heroes and kings seemed to fill the air we breathed, while ancient statues, columns, temples, and walls surrounded us. This climber, however, experienced more than the beauty of the Acropolis and its history. This climber, who once dribbled basketballs down courts and ran breathlessly across ball fields, came face to face with her increasing difficulty with mobility. It was a long, long, climb - up staircase after slippery staircase - with nary a rail to hold on to - on the way up to Acropolis.

It is a gradual descent we make from the abilities of youth to, decades later, the physical challenges of aging. None of us are immune if we are fortunate to live long enough. This thought led me, once home, to think more about the efforts of Framingham's newly formed Disability Commission. Vice Chair Karen Foran, when asked yesterday what the average person should know about their work, answered, "The disabled community is the only minority group which anyone, at any time, can join." Others of us will indeed join this minority group, albeit much more slowly, over time.

Our disabled community has a real solid rail to hold on to in the services and advocacy of the newly formed Disability Commission and its nine commissioners. After only two meetings, Chair Dennis Polselli explained the commission recently adopted priorities; to see that the town completes its self-evaluation of buildings and transition plan regarding handicapped access; to encourage cable networks to provide closed captions for the deaf on public access stations; to encourage the town to provide, on its web page, enhancements to allow access to the blind and visually impaired; to educate the general public, as well as business community, about current issues; and, to advocate for agencies that provide services to the disabled community.

In a phone discussion today, Karen Foran praised Arthur Fitts, owner of Fitts Insurance, for asking the Disability Committee to the table to discuss the renovation of his historic building on Union Avenue downtown. After all, she added, compliance with access issues opens up employment/living opportunities to a whole new population. Everyone wins. It is, she reminded me, the right thing to do.

Supporting the mission of the newly formed Disability Committee is much more than the right thing to do. The law is not a new one. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA,) was created in 1973 by the U. S. Department of Justice in their Civil Rights Division. It is a civil right of the disability community to have access. Further, it is way past time for this to happen.

The Department of Justice offers some assistance to all parties in the effort. Businesses with fewer than 30 employees or with revenues under one million dollars can use a tax credit of up to $5,000 a year to alter facilities, to hire interpreters, or to take steps to improve accessibility. And up to $15,000 a year deduction is available to remove barriers in facilities or vehicles.

These numbers, although a start toward encouraging compliance, hardly approach the actual cost of most renovations. Fire laws and historic preservation issues often complicate compliance and significantly increase costs further. Because of these issues, all levels of government have a serious responsibility to support progress by raising the ante in dollars and by suggesting progressive transitional guidelines towns could follow on the way toward complete compliance.

Kathleen Bartolini, planning and economic development director for Framingham, in a phone call today, stated that she just sent seven town employees to a two-day training session held in Natick, sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Disability. The town is preparing the self-evaluation plan that will transition town buildings into compliance with ADA regulations. Many of our residents look forward to the progress that the town's Disability Commission effort will likely experience while sharing the same conference table.

Interestingly, Kathleen found herself on the other side of the issue recently when she accompanied a disabled friend to the state Democratic convention. Elevators there were shut down because of security issues. She found herself scrambling with her friend to find the freight elevator, which only delivered the twosome to the top of a long, sloping section of seats. With great difficulty, they finally got settled into their assigned seats, but the story did not end here.

Her friends difficulty with mobility kept both of them in their seats for most of the convention - a situation that made their participation much more difficult. Quick access to various areas of the Centrum soon became necessary as deliberations continued, candidates dropped out, and then formed alliances with others who occupied other areas of the cavernous hall. Both women missed a lot of this action. In one short afternoon, a community leader, most often distanced from the very personal issue of disability, struggled both with the issue and its complications.

It was a long climb up, up, and over the rock named Acropolis. When I arrived home, the climb itself gave me something to think about. Many of our neighbors do this symbolic kind of 'climbing' every day and not just on one October day in Greece. No Greek-type myths exist for them and their stories.

Progress will not come overnight. Reasonable efforts, by advocates, the government, and some of the rest of us - who may eventually know a disability of our own - can break down barriers. This should not continue to require a Herculean effort after almost 30 years.

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