‘We’re talking about a person’: The failing public access for people with disabilities

Just over 30 years since the passage of the American’s with Disabilities Act, advocates say Lycoming County still has a long way to go in providing access to all of its residents. 

The halting process of ADA compliance has not progressed fast enough for over 10% of individuals in the county with disabilities, and increased efforts in recent years seek to highlight faulty efforts by local governments, schools and employers. 

Proper accommodations, such as access to government buildings and readily available assistive technology, must be made. Without them, members of this population cannot independently participate in communal life — something local disability advocates and service leaders are determined to change.

“Without accessibility, there is no ability for people with disabilities to be fully integrated into society,” said Misty Dion, CEO of Roads to Freedom, Center for Independent Living.

Dion has worked for CIL, a nationwide, consumer-driven agency that empowers the disabled with a variety of ancillary services, for 16 years. When she became CEO of the Williamsport chapter in 2015, her goal was to integrate both her staff and clients into state and local government. Only then did she realize how many challenges people with disabilities in the area were facing. 

The biggest issues? Accessibility, transportation and affordable housing — all of which affect the potential to hold a steady job. 

Bridging the gap 

Employment is an important step toward independence, both in daily life and financially, according to Chris Tsai, vocational rehabilitation professional. She added that many people with disabilities often struggle with both internal and external factors pertaining to employment. 

Overcoming the inner struggle after years of being told you can’t hold down a job, you can’t live on your own, you can’t do what the other kids are doing, is a tough barrier to break through. 

Inadequate accommodations in the workplace make these barriers even harder to tackle, Dion said.  

“I think some of the biggest misconceptions are that people with disabilities cost more…that they might be more of a liability, which is funny because that couldn’t be further from the truth. Typically, people with disabilities have insurance, are committed or more committed than maybe somebody who gets a job easily…Most reasonable accommodations can be (made for) $50 or less.”

While the majority of pushback against expanding disability accommodations is financial, some simply comes from a lack of understanding, Dion says.

For years, people with disabilities were kept separate, funneled into life skills classes or institutionalized. To address this ignorance, CIL offers Project Able, an outreach sensitivity training program that lets people ‘try on’ a particular disability. 

“It’s a great way for them to get a feel for some of the people they may interact with,” Dion said. “(It) increases their comfort and sort of bridges that gap.”

Building access

At 9 years old, Brain Patchett noticed he couldn’t read the chalkboard from his seat in the back of the classroom. 

At first presumed to be a simple case of being near-sighted, his parents soon realized he had juvenile macular degeneration and his vision would be severely impared for the rest of his life. 

Despite limited access to adaptive technology and stigma from other students, Patchett received a PhD and spent much of his adult life as an advocate helping businesses create adaptive systems for their employees. 

Patchett, now president of North Central Sight Services, is invested in acquiring necessary assistive technology and services for over 10,400 visually impaired people in Lycoming County. 

Even today, many of the school districts don’t have the technology to help kids with impairment have access to the education of those who are fully abled. He stresses the importance of getting everyone — educators, administration, parents and students — on the same page. 

“We’re trying to find ways to help everybody in that situation,” Patchett explained. “How can we provide some expertise and facilitation to help the schools, the families?… How can we find great solutions that will help a child going through school get the education they need, to really be able to be confident and say, ‘I’m going to be successful.’”

Change is happening, but not fast enough

Though Patchett and Dion acknowledge the strides the government has made since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, both say there are many miles to go. 

Built in 1901, the building known today as City Hall was purchased by Williamsport in 1977. Since then numerous deficiencies with the building have piled up, estimated at nearly $5 million. 

In addition to many of the standard building improvements, making accommodations for disability access has been limited. Dion says that although CIL and other disability services have been working with the city for well over three years on the issue, not much has changed. As a result, a lawsuit by the CIL of North Central Pennsylvania and North Central Pennsylvania ADAPT was filed in July 2020 against the city in federal court.

With the recent formation of the Lycoming County Disability Advisory Commission, whose mission includes “educating and advising the commissioners and broader community about issues affecting people with disabilities,” she hopes to see substantial movement in early 2021.

“You just have to educate the public. You have to educate the elected officials. Unfortunately, it’s not quick. But I think persistence…will get you where you need to be.”

Internal Struggles and Moving Forward

Though no one could contest the slew of external issues people who are disabled face, Tsai suggests that perhaps the largest hurdle is internal. Depending on how they were treated at school and home as children, many of her clients have deep insecurities, often not believing they can do things on their own. Troubleshooting this lack of confidence is sometimes half the battle. 

“If you have the mindset (that) nobody is going to hire you, then nobody’s going to hire you,” Tsai said. “But if you are able to change that perception and believe in yourself, then you can overcome external barriers and achieve your goal.”

While the road ahead is long, Patchett says there are people in the community and in government dedicated to making changes. He would rather see immediate access, But he sees change happening and knows that the county and region is growing closer to helping everyone have access to independence. 

“Look at the person first. You’re a person before you have a disability,” Patchett said. “Instead of saying ‘That person can’t do,’ Let’s get to know the person and find out what they can do.”

Authors

  • Allison is a graduate of Lycoming College. She is a Lycoming County native, lover of writing, the arts and people.

  • Anne Reiner has been a journalist for over eight years. She lives in Lycoming County and founded On the PULSE to create a new and engaging way to bring local news to the region of Northcentral, Pennsylvania.

Allison Lax

Allison is a graduate of Lycoming College. She is a Lycoming County native, lover of writing, the arts and people.