The Dream of Universal Access is a Powerful Motivator

by Heather Watkins on July 1, 2007 - 2:44pm

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 4

It started as an irritation and over the years evolved into a delicious ambition. How could I go about increasing accessibility in my community? Should I be the one to voice concerns? Would anyone listen?

These were just some of the questions that echoed in my mind. The answers were soon to follow.

Born with a form of muscular dystrophy, I’m ambulatory but sometimes use a cane for additional support on days when I’m feeling less energetic. Besides safety, my cane helps me retain my sense of freedom and communicates that I’m not just an observer but an active participant in life, even if all the parts aren’t working properly.

But even with the cane, my eyes still gravitate toward impediments like stairs, which always have been a problem for me. Why can’t the world be level? How can I maintain my sense of freedom if stairs keep getting in the way? Why don’t people care more about these things?

Taking the first step

I spent countless hours thinking, wondering and planning. Universal access is such an empowering ambition that I decided to tackle it within my community.

Looking around, I quickly noticed a bakery, bookstore, thrift shop and a hair salon that all had stairs and no other means of access!

The liquor store, however, had no steps and only a slight incline. The entrance looked as if it may have had a step that had been shaved down and smoothed over with concrete. Perhaps those owners know what time it is, or just want the greatest number of patrons to have access to their business.

I took my first step and signed up for a Community Access Monitor certification class offered by the Massachusetts Office on Disability. This two-day training taught me about ADA rights and how to advocate for change in my community.

It was wonderful to be in the company of so many like-minded people. We were motivated by frustration but guided by idealism.

The most important thing I learned in that training was that advocating for change absolutely was something that I could do. I could make a difference in my community and if I needed help along the way, all I had to do was ask.

Finding a partner

Heather Watkins
Heather Watkins walks past a step at the door of a salon in Roslindale Village. Photo by Zara Tzanev, courtesy of the Roslindale/West Roxbury Transcript.

A year would pass before my next step. Up late one night, I was just about to shut off the TV and go to bed when a story on the local news caught my interest. The story was about accessibility issues plaguing parts of Boston, and one of the people interviewed was a woman with multiple sclerosis from Roslindale, my community!

A wheelchair user, Liz Casey was voicing concerns similar to mine. This indeed was a sign! The next day I called her, more excited than nervous, hoping that after hearing my ideas she would want to work together. Just as I hoped, Liz was thrilled and we met soon thereafter and began to strategize.

We began to meet with city officials, both together and individually, regarding our community’s accessibility concerns.

On a very cold day I drove around Roslindale Square with the disability commissioner of Boston, pointing out locations with compromised access. He promised his office would do some surveying of the properties to assess violations and work with property owners.

Another time we met with our city councilor to voice our concerns and pitch our ideas. Again, the response was that the city is willing to work with the community and property owners to achieve the goal of universal access.

We’ve requested meetings with the local Board of Trade president and our area’s Main Streets program director, both of whom promote common commercial interests. Increasing access would indeed be a way to boost those commercial interests.

We’ve spent hours researching information and sending dozens of e-mails to city officials and anyone else we thought might be interested, such as people working in the disability field and at newspapers and magazines.

The Roslindale Transcript, a local newspaper, came out and took a walking tour of Roslindale Square with us. As I pointed out impediments, the reporter’s response was just what I thought it would be — because he is able-bodied, access was something he’d never thought about before.

Pushing past isolation

Our goal is to raise this kind of awareness and to find cost-effective solutions to the accessibility problems in our community. We believe this can be achieved through healthy dialogue and positive action. Our approach isn’t antagonistic toward property owners, as we realize that when something doesn’t directly impact you, it may not be on your radar.

It’s easy to feel that barriers have been intentionally constructed to keep you out, because a community should be inclusive of all its residents. When someone has a disability, lack of access can lead to feelings of isolation, which in turn lowers our visibility in the community.

I know the pain of feeling isolated to the point of depression. It felt safer to stay indoors. Going outside felt like a hassle. It still does, but I realize the beauty in reaching out and connecting with others.

The human spirit is a wonderful propellant for mobility. I believe that if you live in a community, you should have equal access to its resources. And universal access would open consumership to another segment of the population.

This would be an economic boost to the local economy and a boost in community morale. It just makes sense. 

Unfortunately, no businesses have changed anything yet. But Liz and I expected it to take time. Many of our early meetings took place between October and January. Now that the weather is cooperating and the temperatures are no longer brutal, we plan to become more active once again. 

We’re committed and passionate about seeing this project to completion. It’s too important not to. We’d love to see all of Roslindale have complete access and serve as the model for the rest of Boston to follow.

For others thinking of advocating for universal access in your community, start by gathering information about ADA laws. You don’t have to be well-versed — I’m not. However it’s always helpful to know your rights.

I love going online and searching for information on how others have done advocacy work in their communities. Talk with your local council members and board of trade. Take a training class on access monitoring and enlist the help of your local center for independent living, a resource full of information and ready to assist.

Remember, it’s your right to have access!

Heather Watkins, 34, has a congenital myopathy. A graduate of Emerson College in Boston, she currently is a stay-at-home mother, but plans to return to work soon and has completed a poetry manuscript. She enjoys reading, daydreaming, chocolate and would love to travel to other countries.

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