BROOKINGS – July 26 is the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. 

And for the first time, via the efforts of the Brookings Committee for People Who Have Disabilities, the city has a universal message for all who live here: “Some day it will be me. Some day every single person out there will end up disabled in one form or another.” 

Mayor Keith Corbett has proclaimed Friday, July 26, Disabilities Awareness Day, noting that “ … disability is a natural part of the human experience that does not diminish the right of individuals with disabilities to enjoy the opportunity to live independently, enjoy self-determination, make choices, contribute to society, and experience full integration and inclusion in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream with necessary services and supports.”

The proclamation calls upon the people of Brookings “to join their fellow citizens and community organizations in recognizing this special observance.”

And reinforcing the proclamation is the committee’s hashtag, #WhatIfItWasMe. It’s straightforward stance asks, “What if I was the one: on crutches … in a wheelchair … who couldn’t get a door opened … couldn’t navigate the stairs … needed help getting from one place to another?”   

“Next year I would like to see it as a much broader, bigger thing,” Mark Sternhagen, chairman of the city’s Committee for People Who Have Disabilities, said. “I would like to see it go statewide.” 

He added that next year will be the 45th anniversary of Public Law 94-142, the “mainstream law.”

“That’s what led to mainstreaming,” the chairman explained. “The law states that all children are entitled to an education; and it must be provided in the least restrictive way possible. It changed how things are and it led to ADA.”

However, Sternhagen sees ADA as “a bare minimum kind of a starting point. If you look at the laws and what’s required, it’s pretty minimal. Most businesses don’t have to do much to comply legally.” He wants to look beyond ADA. That’s the genesis of “Disabilities Awareness Day.”

Sternhagen can personally relate to what the Brookings Committee for People Who Have Disabilities is proposing. He is, coincidentally, the only one of the eight committee members who has a disability. Since contracting polio as a child, he has lived with a disability and uses a wheelchair.

“I want people to look at (the proclamation as) what if it was me?” he explained. “What if I was the one, what if it’s you in the wheelchair? What if you’re the one who has to get through that damn door? What if you’re the one, ‘there’s steps, I’m not going in there. I can’t get in.’”

Kudos to BATA

The committee’s underlying message is aimed at “all disabilities, not just the physical ones. But those are the easy ones to see and to think about.” 

And having a disability is over the long haul something that affects everybody. 

“Every single person some day is going to be in this position where physical access is going to be an issue,” Sternhagen explained. “Maybe all (people) won’t end up in a wheelchair; but everybody gets to a point where it’s hard to get around, where it’s hard to get through doors, things like that and steps.

“It’s more of a state of mind. To think about some things we don’t want to think about. I don’t want to think about the point to where I have to go in a home or something like that. I like my independence.”

In a positive vein, the chairman sees Brookings as a proactive city for people who have disabilities. And a key piece of evidence for that is Brookings Area Transit Authority, being recognized as this year’s ABLE Award recipient. The ABLE (Ability, Belief, Leadership and Equality to Achieve Access for All) Award is presented annually to recognize a business or public entity that fulfills the goals of ADA.

Sternhagen admits he was “shocked” that in the 20-year history of the award, BATA has never been the recipient.  

“For people who are disabled, BATA is a godsend,” he explained. “I would literally be pretty much stuck in my house if it wasn’t for BATA. 

“So many of the other things that have to do with access wouldn’t matter at all if BATA wasn’t there; because you couldn’t even get to the store you couldn’t get into. Everybody gets to the point where BATA’s a good thing to have around.

“Great people. I use it quite a bit. All of the drivers are just so helpful.”

The mayor’s proclamation for July 26 and the message of the Brookings Committee for People Who Have Disabilities can be summed up succinctly in a few words: “At least just for that day: to think about ‘what if it was me.’”

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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