Pappanikou Center Helps Build Better
With financial and technical help from the A. J. Pappanikou Center for Developmental Disabilities and the state Department of Social Services, residents in three Connecticut cities - Groton, Bridgeport, and New Haven - are taking concrete steps to make their communities more supportive for people of all ages with disabilities.
The three towns were selected as model cities by the Pappanikou Center, a partnership between the Health Center and the Neag School of Education that moved from the Storrs campus to the Health Center two years ago. The model cities program is part of a $1.3 million Real Choice Systems Change Grant awarded to the Social Services Department and administered by the Pappanikou Center.
The communities will each receive $75,000 over three years, along with technical assistance from the center, to become models of inclusion, providing opportunities and choices to persons with disabilities throughout their lives.
"Each of these communities has taken bold first steps toward awareness and change," says Christine Gaynor, coordinator of the grant for the center. "Providing opportunities and access to persons with disabilities throughout their lifespans can only enrich the entire community."
In Groton, with funds and expertise provided through the grant, town employees are receiving training to help them better understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities in accessing town services.
"The training focuses on identifying barriers, both physical and attitudinal, that hinder access to community resources for individuals with disabilities," says Gaynor. "People with disabilities are citizens just like anybody else. The training is designed to help town employees improve their comfort level and understand the issues their constituents face. We want to help town employees identify barriers, such as a lack of a ramp or their own fear or lack of understanding of a person with mental illness."
Other activities in Groton include comprehensive training for pre-schools and early childhood education centers, and programs like "Kids on the Block," an educational puppet program that teaches children sensitivity, awareness, and an understanding of youngsters with disabilities.
In New Haven, grant funds are being used to prepare and distribute a quarterly newsletter containing items of interest to people of all ages with disabilities, including information on a variety of disability resources. Grant funds are also being used to assess restaurants for their accessibility to those with disabilities.
"We are looking at sites that advertise their accessibility," says Susan Zimmerman, community facilitator for the Pappanikou Center. "We're taking a look at both the accessibility of the space and the attitude of the people working there. Even if the space isn't completely accessible, a welcoming, supportive attitude by employees can make a tremendous difference in promoting inclusion."
In Bridgeport, tasks underway include an inventory of housing that will accommodate people with any disability, and an effort to change zoning regulations to provide more accessible housing opportunities. Other activities include assisting people with disabilities to acquire the skills needed to serve on municipal boards and commissions, and developing a resource guide to various local services and accommodations.
"Expanding and improving the inclusion of people with disabilities across the lifespan will enrich Bridgeport's already broad diversity, and enhance involvement of people with disabilities throughout the community," says Karen Roseman, director of Bridgeport's Office for Persons with Disabilities.
In addition to the Model Communities program, the Real Choice grant will support a variety of other ways to remove barriers that prevent people with disabilities from being fully included citizens. For example, the grant will fund a survey of the extent to which people with disabilities can receive education and obtain employment, housing, and other support and services in the towns where they live.
The three model communities were selected from 20 that submitted applications. Their work under the grant will be made available to other communities throughout the state and the country. "Our goal is to share information and strategies widely," says Gaynor.
Mary Beth Bruder, principal investigator of the grant, along with David Guttchen of the state Office of Policy and Management, says the grant will promote better and broader communication among advocacy groups, agencies, and communities throughout the state working on improving the quality of life for persons with disabilities.
She notes that the steering committee established to oversee the grant brings together representatives of all the organizations involved. "And, because consumer representatives make up 51 percent of the committee, and most of its staff members are persons with disabilities or have family members with disabilities," Bruder says, "it will have a true perspective on the issues."