Equal access: How Fort Wayne is expanding and connecting services for people with disabilities

As CEO of the AWS Foundation, Patti Hays knows there are many organizations serving children and adults with disabilities in the Fort Wayne region. But finding and accessing all of their resources and programs can be a challenge.

That’s why one of the Foundation’s projects, developed in 2018, is the Indiana Disability Resource FINDER, a directory of services, programs, and articles for the disability community. It is an online platform seeking to make it easier for those who need services to get them—especially as more and more resources emerge in Fort Wayne. Hays

Since 2007, the AWS Foundation has been funding grants to organizations with a vision to turn Northeast Indiana into a region where people with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities are engaged fully and meaningfully in all aspects of community life.

To get there, Hays believes Fort Wayne has room to improve in terms of being more pervasively disability-friendly. 

“It is a process, and we're en route; that's the best I can say,” Hays says. “I don't know that you can ever be fully accessible, but it's an admirable goal, and as long as we keep working toward that, that's what's important.” 

Over the years, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) has made strides toward greater access to public infrastructure and guaranteed accommodations for employment among people with disabilities. Cities and businesses have accessible developments, like signs in braille, accessible entrances, and elevators in buildings, thanks to ADA standards. Even so, the ADA focuses primarily on people with physical disabilities, meeting only a fraction of the existing—and expanding—need for inclusivity, Hays notes.

“In the 32 years since ADA, we see the incidence of autism diagnosis increasing,” she says. “We see shutting down of state institutions, individuals being more community-integrated, and self-advocacy–-people saying, 'I don't want to be restricted. I want the same access to a community as everyone else in my family has.'”

Clif Wallace uses the control on his wheelchair while at the AWS Foundation.

While ADA sets the minimum standards for inclusivity in communities, a more fundamentally inclusive concept, known as Universal Design, moves cities to higher levels of accessibility, Hays says. Although people tend to think of Universal Design in terms of architecture, she notes that it also encompasses an organization’s experiences, programs, and staff, such as implementing inclusive hiring practices or seeking direct input from people with disabilities on projects. Hays says, locally, one of the best examples of embracing Universal Design is happening at the Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA.)

“They reached out and got input from a lot of people with disabilities,” says Hays. “They spent some time talking with staff here at AWS Foundation, and then they found things on their own.”

Exterior of the AWS Foundation, 5323 W Jefferson Blvd, Fort Wayne, IN 46804.

Tina Acosta, Director of Program Outreach and Certified ADA Coordinator for Turnstone Center, says the airport contacted them as they were making plans for the west terminal expansion, which is currently underway. Turnstone helped assemble groups of people with different disabilities to serve as advisors on the project. 

“Each of those groups met on a separate day, and we focused just on what was important to them,” Acosta says. “We started at the entrance to the airport, and we talked about the parking lot and the ease of getting to the front entrance, and then all the way to the gate.” 

Acosta says that the staff at the airport and the architects were very interested in what people with disabilities had to say and incorporated many of their suggestions into the final plans.

Scott Hinderman, Director of Airports for the Fort Wayne – Allen County Airport Authority, says they identified accessibility goals very early in the project planning process. 

“Our architect used Universal Design and ADA as part of their architectural design process, but our entire team went above and beyond UD and ADA,” he says.

Some of the features that make the new airport terminal more disability-friendly include: Five accessible van cutouts on the terminal curbside; a curbside drop-off accessible for someone in a wheelchair with a low profile for lifting bags; high contrast signage; a linear cane trail that leads down the main concourse; a hearing loop at the gates; low profile bag scales; a sensory room; a service animal relief area; an adult-sized changing table; and clearly identifiable entrances to vestibules and boarding bridges.
          
Hinderman recommends that anyone in Fort Wayne planning to make Universal Design infrastructure improvements engage with local experts. 

“We are fortunate to have such great organizations in our community, like Turnstone and AWS, who helped guide us through this process,” he says. “I would encourage everyone to explore any opportunities they can to make sure their facilities are accessible to all. It is the right thing to do and a rewarding experience.”

From left: John Guingrich, Moriah Backhaus, and Sylvia Adams have a work meeting at The League For the Blind - Disabled.

In addition, Hinderman applauds Joe Marana, the Director of Operations and Facilities at the airport, who he says worked as a lead for their team throughout the terminal expansion and the overall effort to make sure it is accessible to all. 

“If facility owners and managers put in the time to make these changes, our community will all have a better experience as we live, work, and play in the region,” he says.

Another effort by FWA to be more disability-friendly is The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program. Green lanyards and bracelets with sunflowers on them are available at the Welcome Center for free. Travelers with hidden disabilities can wear these items to indicate to airport staff that they may need extra time or help getting through the terminal. The program started at Gatwick Airport in London, and FWA is the first airport in Indiana to employ the program.

“I would like to see (organizations implementing infrastructure improvements for people with disabilities) more in the city,” says Hays. “I keep thinking every time a prospective business that's looking at Fort Wayne flies into our airport, they will say, 'Oh my gosh this must be a really caring community. Look at these elements that they've integrated. Look at what they have included to make everyone welcome.’”

Beyond the airport, making developments more accessible and embracing Universal Design is catching on in other areas of Fort Wayne, too. Visit Fort Wayne has assembled a list of resources for people with disabilities and things to do that offer accommodations or accessible features. One example is Parkview Field. Someone who uses a powered wheelchair can charge their battery while they are enjoying the baseball game. 

“They built in a lot of great accessibility features when they built that stadium,” says Acosta from Turnstone. “We actually had a group of our clients who went down and tested out the accessibility features before they opened." 

Clif Wallace showcases the extra wide doors suitable for wheelchairs while at the AWS Foundation.

Acosta says that there are many organizations sponsoring sensory-friendly events, as well. The Fort Wayne Philharmonic held a sensory-friendly concert this spring. The event was designed to accommodate children and adults with sensory sensitivities by making modifications to the performance including not lowering the lights. Prior to the show, there were stations set up so audience members could play instruments. Before each piece was played, someone would describe what the music was about and what to expect in terms of types of sound and volume. And if people needed to get up and walk around, that was acceptable.

Turnstone, because of their association with the Paralympics, has connections all over the world. 

“We want people to know that we are a resource—whether you come into our agency for a service, or whether you get your service through a virtual session or a phone call,” says Acosta. “We want businesses and organizations to know that we're a resource, as well.”

One of the resources available to anyone is a video that Turnstone created to bring more awareness about treating those with disabilities, like people, first. Acosta encourages organizations to use the video as a training tool and a way to start conversations.

Acosta has an ADA coordinator certification so she has access to a lot of information about accessibility. Although the information is public knowledge, she knows how to find it quickly and can guide people on their journey to being more disability-friendly. 

“We want the community to understand that making changes to be more accessible is really not that difficult, and in a lot of ways, it's not costly,” she says. “We want to be more involved in the community.”

The AWS Foundation wants to be a resource, too. Their new facility was built to be a model of Universal Design. There are extra-wide hallways and workspaces are spread out to accommodate employees who might have a service animal or be in a wheelchair. Desks are height-adjustable, and the rooms have sound buffers. 

“We are anticipating possible needs so that when a person comes in, it's as if we planned on them being there,” says Hays.

Program Officer for AWS Mandy Drakeford, left, and Clif Wallace showcase how having different levels of tables available and different types of seating is important while at the AWS Foundation.

The AWS building has meeting rooms they make available to grantees and other organizations to use. Each room is set up to anticipate the needs of visitors and make accommodations for those with disabilities. There are hearing loops, cameras, enhanced microphones, and different heights of tables and chairs.

If businesses or organizations want to see what Universal Design might look like in practice, Hays invites anyone to come to their building to see some examples firsthand. But she acknowledges that even AWS didn’t get it right the first time around. 

“We thought we did a great job with this building, and we had some clients from Turnstone and from The League do a walk-through, and we had to change several things,” she says. “We got it wrong.”

This is a good reminder to incorporate people with disabilities in your planning and evaluation process. As the saying goes, “Nothing about us without us.”

As organizations, like The League, Turnstone, and the AWS Foundation, keep spreading the word about accessibility and Universal Design, Hays is hopeful Fort Wayne will become increasingly all-abilities-friendly. 

“It's really exciting to see how other people are embracing (Universal Design),” says Hays. “Everybody is kind of like, 'I want to do that, too.' And some of it first came to attention with Promenade Park when the city and the parks department had that vision of, 'How do we make Promenade accessible?'”

This story is part of a series on the 8 Domains of Livability in Northeast Indiana, underwritten by AARP.