Sara Drew had an objective: raise awareness of disability issues in the community. Her plan was simple. She initiated a disabilities commission as one of her first official duties as Stow’s newly elected mayor at the beginning of 2012. The city-sanctioned commission, the only one of its kind in Summit County, began meeting more than 12 months ago.
The Stow commission meets monthly in City Hall’s Boards and Commissions room. It is open to the public and has a purpose of advising the city on policies, practices and infrastructure changes that give people with disabilities and their families full access to the community.
Their mission states: “The Stow Commission on Disabilities’ mission is to seek out potential issues for people who have disabilities in order to eliminate any boundaries within the city and create a place that is accessible for all people.”
The Summit County Developmental Disabilities Board nominated Drew for a statewide Ohio Public Image Award for elected officials earlier this year. Drew was chosen for an Excellence Award.
“Commissions like the one she formed go above and beyond what are required of cities,” said county board Communications Director Billie Jo David. “Accessibility in communities is aligned with our mission and Drew deserved recognition for being proactive,” David said. Drew received the award in March at an OPI event in Dublin, Ohio. The awards coincided with Developmental Disabilities Awareness month.
One of the commission’s first accomplishments was assisting citizen voters at the local senior center to understand their options for casting ballots and registering new voters. Future goals include putting together a speakers’ bureau and holding a disabilities awareness program at the library, plus assembling packets of pamphlets and other useful information.
Richard Brandon, an employee of the Stow-Monroe Falls Public Library for seven years, is the current commission chairman. He was elected to the one-year position starting in January, 2013. Members of the commission serve four-year terms. Brandon (47) became involved after seeing an article in the Akron Beacon Journal shortly after the mayor was elected saying she wanted to put the commission together.
“I just said out of the blue: ‘Gee, I’d like to be part of that commission,’ because I’ve lived in Stow all my life, I’ve been disabled all my life and I think I know the ins and outs of what it’s like living as a disabled person in Stow and I thought I’d be a good asset for this commission,” he said.
Little did he know you had to fill out a form to be on it. The form was sent. They looked it over and contacted him about a week later and said, “You’ve been accepted.”
“Everybody that’s on the commission had to be sworn in by the mayor,” Brandon said. “It’s a four-year thing, so I will be part of this commission till 2016 – hopefully longer than that.” Brandon said the group meets once a month essentially to make the community more aware of the issues confronting people with disabilities and also to brainstorm ideas for improvements that can be made in the future.
“Not just accessibility construction wise – more ramps and curb cuts, etc., and elevators, but also advocating for disabled people in the job market, trying to get them into the the ‘real world,'” he added.
At a recent meeting, the commission discussed the lack of handicap parking and designated areas for wheelchairs along the Fourth of July parade route, and if there could be some designated strip at a parking lot. It was suggested that a church or business along the route might be able to accommodate this request, or, possibly Stow Glen. It was decided that a member(s) attend the parade committee meeting to pursue this avenue for wheelchair accessibility.
Another concern brought before the commission came from residents of Saltis Towers who felt there to be a lack of sufficient sidewalks for those who wished to go to ALDI supermarket. It was suggested the tenants write down their concerns so they can be brought to the city’s attention.
The commission will host a “Meet and Greet” informational evening May 8 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers at Stow City Hall.
It will be along the lines of: “This is what we do,” and will have display areas for different organizations in the community. The Dane Foundation; Arc; Evant Inc.; Ms. Wheelchair USA; Adaptive Sports of Ohio; and the Commission on Disabilities will be represented. It is hoped that Ms. Wheelchair USA 2012 from Wisconsin will be able to appear at the event combined with a book signing during the day.
Mayor Drew is no stranger to issues involving disabilities, having worked at the Summit County Board of Developmental Disabilities for more than four years. Before that she worked for the state of Ohio as a vocational counselor for people with disabilities, primarily psychiatric disabilities. She also worked at Community Support Services for a number of years working with adults with psychiatric disabilities.
“I’ve worked in a private rehabilitation firm that contracted with the Bureau of Worker’s Compensation to work with individuals that have had severe and sustaining injuries caused by workplace accidents that in effect were a permanent disability, and they needed to change aspects of their life, including their career because they wouldn’t be able to return to what they had done in the past,” she said. “So I worked with people who had suffered amputations or back injuries or sometimes [had] issues related to psychiatric disabilities. Things like that. I’ve had a lot of varied experience.”
When asked what gave her the idea to set up the commission, she said she didn’t know if there was anything specific. “It’s an area that I felt was important to address, and I felt it was important to find a venue and a vehicle to make it part of our conversation as we make public policy, just as we consider other things when we make public policy. Issues related to people living with disabilities isn’t a separate special interest. It is something that’s just part of the fabric of our community, and I saw this as a way to help ensure that we saw it that way when we were looking at legislation or public policy or practices around the city. So we can’t really say that there was one specific thing that sparked my interest in doing that. It just seemed like the right thing to do in general,” Drew said.
The group works consistently with the Dane Foundation; the Arc of Summit, Portage, and Medina counties; and Stow-Monroe Falls schools to promote disability awareness in Northeast Ohio. The Stow Commission on Disabilities is seeking input about which projects could be undertaken. Contact Brandon at [email protected] and include “Community concerns” in the email’s subject line.