Absolutely Accessible Kent – Update

Doug standing next to a Disability Advocates banner


As 2019 winds down, I wanted to take a moment to recap the very impactful year of our Absolutely Accessible Kent project and to give you a few teasers for 2020.

With the weather being unseasonably cold these past few weeks, it might take you to January 30th when our first Absolutely Accessible Kent gathering of the year was postponed due to the Polar Vortex.  Thus, 2019 had a slower than anticipated beginning.  However, with the rescheduled gathering on February 11th, the year took off. 

The highpoint of our accessibility work was the recognition that Experience Grand Rapids and Disability Advocates received in March 6th.  Together, we were awarded the 2019 Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism Collaboration in the non-traditional partnership category. The award acknowledged the efforts Experience GR has made in collaboration with us and others to create a better experience for people with disabilities looking to travel to Grand Rapids.  This included their staff and Grand Rapids Certified Tourism Ambassadors (CTA’s) receiving the Disability Decorum training.  Experience GR also worked with us to catalog over 60 local venues on their level of accessibility. The new Accessibility Navigator can be found under the newly implemented “Accessibility” landing page on the Experience GR website.

The highlight of the year happened on April 18th when we held the inaugural Absolutely Accessible Kent technical workshop and luncheon with Ileana Rodriguez.  Her firsthand experience as an architect, Paralympian and wheelchair user brought new understandings to all who attended.  A COUPLE MORE THOUGHTS  During her lunch presentation, Ileana told her story of growing up in Cuba as a person who acquired a disability and more about her work with the US and International Paralympic Committees.  (The story of her and her cousin riding the horse as the nun in charge looked on during the boring field trip demonstrated her tenacity and inability to take, “no” or “you cannot do that” for answers.)  Also during the luncheon, Mike Perry of Progressive AE gave a snapshot of their work on incorporating Universal Design at the Mary Free Bed YMCA and in other projects around the world.

At the end of that day, a group of persons with disabilities met with Ileana to discuss what they can do as persons with disabilities to be a part of Absolutely Accessible Kent.  This group then met formally in May and has now developed into the “Test Pilots.”  They have since been engaged with focus groups, site reviews, accessibility audits and more.  They also provided the firsthand knowledge and perspective that guided the Downtown Accessibility Charrettes so well.  However, I am getting ahead of myself.

In June, Mike and Jessica Griffis also of Progressive AE led a tour at the Mary Free Bed YMCA.  Interactive as the learning of Mike and Jessica was expanded by the Test Pilots who attended, especially those with visual impairments.

Back to the Accessibility Charrettes that occurred downtown Grand Rapids.  Design professionals, community advocates and Test Pilots came together July 23rd and 24th for the Inclusive Design Charrette.  Sponsored by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the Inclusive Design Charrette involved small groups of design professionals venturing out into the community with Test Pilots to assess the accessibility of several downtown venues and to evaluate the pathways there and back again. The initiative connected those who have experienced the most exclusion with those who are designing and planning the built environments of our community. By working together, they explored opportunities for innovation and prototype solutions that will be inclusive and sustainable.

At the end of August, draft prototypes were presented to and edited by the Test Pilots.  Since then, these designs have been honed more and further refined.  The Prototypes are being rolled out on Monday, November 4th.

With these high points in mind, 2019 also saw our team conduct a record number of accessibility reviews and consultations along with twice as many disability Decorum trainings as we had projected.

As for our plans in 2020, we have been working on additional experiential learning opportunities such as a tour or two along with some fun sketching and thinking.  Therefore, expect invitations and updates now again to pop into your inbox.

Finally, mark your calendar for the Second Annual Absolutely Accessible Kent Workshop and Luncheon which will be on Tuesday April 21, 2020.  We had such a great learning experience with Ileana, y’all asked for another.  The details are all but finalized and, once they are, you will be getting those along with the invite.

All of the work of Absolutely Accessible Kent, of course, cannot be done without you.  I hope you are intrigued by and can see how you can be engaged with our various activities. 

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, do not hesitate to send them our way.

We look forward to working with you soon as we create an Absolutely Accessible Kent!

Dave Bulkowski, Executive Director

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