A midwest city improves access to city facilities, programs and services.
In the mid-1800's, the small town of Springfield, Missouri, was truly a part of the Wild West. The first recorded shoot-out in American history took place on the town square between Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt (Hickok won). Springfield was a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach, the preferred method of travel for passengers wishing to go west to California. That town has changed since those days in many ways. Now a city of 156,000 people, Springfield has become decidedly more gentle. It has made quality of life a top priority to attract and retain residents. Its public library system has more than 450,000 volumes, its 42 parks attract residents and visitors alike, and the city works hard to keep its citizens informed about and involved in their government.
For people with disabilities living in the Springfield area, being fully involved in the community hasn't always been easy. Many barriers to access existed and had the unintended effect of keeping people with disabilities out of the mainstream, unable to access services, and unable to participate in all that Springfield has to offer its residents. Claudia Engram, a long-time Springfield resident and wheelchair user, recalls that, prior to the ADA, the only recourse she and others felt they had to increase access to city facilities was working to modify the citys building codes. Changes then were few and far between.
But things have changed for people with disabilities in Springfield. In 1998, a complaint was filed with the Department alleging that the city's facilities, the city utilities' main office building, and the Springfield-Greene County Library were not accessible to people with disabilities. City officials began to take a look at their facilities and services, identify barriers, and develop a plan to remove those barriers. From the outset, the city demonstrated a sincere commitment to comply with the ADA and energetically worked to find creative, cost-effective solutions to provide access for all people with disabilities.
The city and the Department of Justice reached agreements that apply to virtually everything the city does: from providing an accessible entrance and parking at the Midtown Library, to lowering the service counter at the city utilities building, to installing accessible restrooms at the Busch Municipal Building. The city also agreed to remove barriers for people who have communication disabilities by installing Braille and raised-letter signage, to provide sign language interpreters, and to work to increase the accessibility of the city's Web page. The three-city entities combined their resources and worked closely with local disability rights groups to develop an ADA and disability awareness training program, which has already been conducted throughout the city. The resulting agreements have already changed, and will continue to change, life for Springfield's residents with disabilities.
Marion Trimble, a self-described outdoors person, always made an effort to expose her four now-grown children to as many outdoor experiences as possible when they were growing up, often using public park and recreation areas. But when Marion began using a walker because of a mobility impairment, she found that her choices were limited to those parks with the fewest obstacles. This not only had an impact on her, but on anyone else -- family or friends going to the park with her. It limits not only your freedom, but that of others in the family. Everyone likes being a part of the group and not the cause for limitations or underlying discord, like when suggestions for parks to visit bring responses such as 'oh, we can't go there' or 'ugh, that same old place'. Greater access to more parks means increased opportunities to enjoy spontaneous visits to recreation sites that before were either risky to use or had to be avoided altogether. Springfield's efforts to increase access at its many parks, including the new accessible paths to the playground equipment and picnic tables, have not gone unnoticed. Trimble is pleased with the changes and says, The more that parks and natural areas are accessible [the more it] helps families. I really enjoy being able to get down to the banks of a trout stream or being able to attend family and other group outings wherever they are held.
Claudia Engram also has noticed the city's efforts to become more accessible. A frequent library patron, Claudia could never independently use a library. She couldn't move around, browse the books, or use a library computer because so many barriers existed. But now, the Midtown Branch Library is much more accessible and welcoming: the library has, among other things, installed additional accessible parking, widened doorways that were too narrow to accommodate someone using a wheelchair, installed Braille signage, lowered counters at locations throughout the library, installed visual alarms to notify patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing of an emergency, and developed a policy to provide sign language interpreters when needed. These changes will allow all library goers with disabilities to use the facilities independently, a fact not lost on Claudia. Don't misunderstand. Over the years Springfield library personnel have always been helpful to me. But there is nothing better than being able to come and go as you please, to independently and comfortably use the library like everyone else does.
Great strides have been made in Springfield, Missouri. The city has worked and will continue to work to provide access for each of its citizens. The impact of the settlements on the city is far more than the sum of its parts. According to Jim Bingham, an official with Springfield Utilities, We were able to make a number of helpful changes at a very small cost . . . that accomplished the goals of the ADA without putting an undue burden on the Utility, either financially or operationally. Bingham also commented on how much he and others had learned about the ADA throughout the experience. But it wasn't until the training for city employees, conducted in conjunction with a local advocacy group, that he realized how little they knew or thought about the barriers that people with disabilities face every day. I think many of the folks involved had probably never been exposed to the ADA and I believe it raised the collective conscience of those in attendance. Phil Broyles, Assistant Director of Public Works, also reflected on the experience. Our awareness has been raised and we take care of things more quickly. We're doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. As a city, we should feel good that we're doing the right thing in making city buildings accessible, because if anything should be accessible, it's city buildings. People with disabilities can look forward to being active members of the Springfield community for a long time to come.