Raising Disability Awareness

By Eileen A. Hotho

As children gather on Saturday mornings in the Donny C. Thiry Memorial gymnasium in the town of Hamburg, N.Y., Senior Community Center, they greet their friends with bursts of laughter and look to coaches in anticipation of the activities to come. First, the younger ones arrive to play in Adaptive Sports and Recreation, followed by their older peers and perhaps some young adults who live in group homes for individuals with disabilities. After the games and equipment are put away, some people will move on to art therapy, later bringing home their treasures to decorate a wall or refrigerator.

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The program was initiated about 11 years ago to answer a public need and has grown to accommodate even greater numbers. Along the way, it has become more inclusive. Participants range in age and in physical and intellectual ability. Some may be on the autism spectrum or may use a walker or wheelchair. All are there in the gymnasium to have fun in a safe, friendly, environment as parents look on from the sidelines, laughing together or offering each other support.

Advice From An Expert
But accessibility is more than programming for all. It must open doors, both figuratively and literally, to all people. Accessibility in town recreation received a boost about a decade ago when Recreation Director Martin C. Denecke hired David B. Whalen, an expert in disability awareness as a consultant following a chance meeting at the department’s Adaptive Recreation Expo. Whalen was asked to take a look at the adaptive recreation program and train staff members, helping them gain greater insight into the needs of individuals with disabilities. Whalen founded Disability Awareness Training in 2004 and specializes in the training of law enforcement; emergency responders; human-service providers; public, private, and school transportation; corporations and businesses; places of worship; and educators. He has trained emergency management, police, firefighters, medical services, and 911 dispatchers in New York, Montana, Missouri, and Virginia.

“We felt that, as a consultant, Dave could be an asset in integrating and expanding our program to be inclusive, and when we have someone with disabilities, we want to accommodate them, and to get them into regular programs whenever possible,” says Denecke. “That was one of the things that Dave addressed and helped us to put into practice. That was one of the things that Dave stressed.” Denecke says the annual Disability Awareness Training helps staff recognize disabilities and become sensitive to what the disability is, such as autism, and accommodate it. In this instance, it would be awareness that individuals with autism may be sensitive to noise or may have difficulty in crowded activities. “We wanted the staff to be aware of our expectations and be trained to do whatever it takes to make sure individuals with disabilities are included,” Denecke says.

“The town of Hamburg Department of Youth, Recreation and Senior Services has implemented adaptive sports and recreation programs for many years. In addition, we have partnered with other service providers (SABAH and Gliding Stars, for example) in an effort to better meet the needs of individuals with disabilities,” he says. “Along the way, we have sought to improve and enhance our offerings, philosophies, and opportunities in this realm. Dave Whalen has guided us in this mission, and we have taken a number of positive steps in this direction.”

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Whalen started the process with a study on the accessibility of recreation facilities and parks, which helped the administration in terms of identifying and eliminating barriers to participation. “He also coached us on the importance of inclusion so that we are now more clear on the goal of integrated programming. Finally, he provided practical information and examples of how we can better accommodate every person’s chance to participate,” Denecke says. Although we have much room for improvement, I believe with Dave’s assistance, we are on our way to becoming a shining example for any municipality in regards to inclusiveness,” he says.

A Step Further
Now, the town is embarking upon the greater challenge to move beyond recreational access, where it excels, to bring all of its programs and facilities up to speed with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The reorganized Committee on Disabilities will begin identifying the need areas after a review of the town’s self-evaluation. This will lead to a transition plan to call for action in all areas of noncompliance.  As part of this effort, town personnel will begin attending the Disability Awareness Training already provided to Denecke’s staff.

The training is designed to both sensitize and educate the audience on all aspects of disabilities, including the definition of disabilities, etiquette and interaction skills, stigma and misperceptions, proactive approaches to community inclusion and integration, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and overcoming barriers through advocacy. Whalen says his program helps audiences to understand the broader spectrum of disabilities while clearing up misconceptions.

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“In Hamburg, we have made headway in the recreation programs offered, and with the facilities,” Whalen says. “On the positive side, we have trained all of the recreation staff, and we have already completed an accessibility review of all of the facilities. We have expanded and integrated programs.”

The first step was to list all recreation programs and facilities—such as an ice arena, a golf course, two beaches with buildings on site (one in a town park and one in state park operated by the town), a building housing a preschool program, and neighborhood parks with play equipment—with accessibility in mind. When a deficiency was identified, it was to be added to a “punch list” to be corrected. This resulted in greater accessibility to the beach at Woodlawn Beach State Park, which has been operated by the town since 2011. A ramp was created at the end of a long, wooden boardwalk to the beach, and the next step will be the addition of a mat to extend access close to the water for people who have difficulty walking. Two beach wheelchairs donated to the town have created even greater access.

A Model Community
The town’s accessibility review received an assist from the New York State Inclusiveness Resource Center, which performed a study of the town’s recreation facilities and made recommendations. The voluntary review was performed at the invitation of Denecke, with input from Whalen, and culminated in Hamburg Recreation being honored by the New York State Recreation and Parks Society at its annual convention in April 2017. In presenting the award to Denecke, Dr. Lynn Anderson, service professor with the Inclusiveness Resource Center, said the IRRC wished to recognize Hamburg for its efforts at inclusion. “We commend your dedication to enhancing inclusive practices through your agency’s participation in our youth-inclusion project,” she said. “Your impact on the recreation and parks community has been noticed, and we commend you for your dedicated participation.”

“I’m looking forward to training town staff and doing further accessibility reviews at all of the town … facilities,” Whalen says. “While we have a way to go, this town has a solid foundation from which we will be able to make it a model community.”

Eileen A. Hotho is the Communications Coordinator for the town of Hamburg Department of Youth, Recreation and Senior Services. Reach her at ehotho@townofhamburgny.com.