ince the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act 29 years ago this month, Sylva and Jackson County have made great strides in opening up access to those facing physical challenges.
But there’s still work to be done. And the need is pressing, because as our community ages more and more people will face disability challenges.
Of course, this isn’t entirely an age issue. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s five-year survey from 2013-17, 9.3 percent of county residents under the age of 65 have a disability. Among the veteran population, the rate is 31.98 percent.
Age is an issue in that as the nation ages the number of people with disabilities is growing. The percentage of people with a disability across the country grew from 11.9 percent in 2010 to 12.8 percent in 2016, with the percentage of people over 65 classified with a disability standing at 35.2 percent.
The signing of the ADA was marked here in a July 11 celebration hosted by DisAbility Partners, a Sylva group that advocates for those with disabilities. The goal of the ADA was to help people with disabilities integrate into their communities. The mechanism to achieve that goal was a mandate that public entities evaluate accessibility and develop a transition plan by mid-1992, with required upgrades in place by Jan. 26, 1995.
DisAbility Partners General Manager Gale Anglin, a double amputee with prosthetic legs, said “When the ADA came along, things changed. I can pretty much go where I want to go. I drive, I don’t have to depend on anybody for anything. But we have to work with people today on the way they think about people with disabilities. There’s still a lot of work to be done to educate people.”
Among local fixtures lauded for working with the disabled is Jackson County Transit. Lynda Cowan, the director of Person First Services, works with developmentally disabled people and said “Jackson County Transit has been working really well for us. That’s important, because many of our people live in rural areas.”
Ease of access to the Jackson County Public Library was also lauded by Cowan.
Sylva itself was largely built before the ADA was even a vague concept, and parts of the town still have drawbacks – a lack of curb cuts, for example.
Picture access for the disabled as a chain. The first link might be a handicapped ramp at a person’s home, something volunteers in the county have been very good at building. The second link would be transportation. The third would be getting out of that transportation and onto a sidewalk or into a store.
If any link in that chain is missing, the chain doesn’t work.
“One thing I find really aggravating downtown is at Advanced Homecare,” Anglin said. “They deal with wheelchairs and all kinds of equipment for people with disabilities. There’s an accessible parking spot in front of the store, but there is no curb cut.”
As to downtown stores, buildings constructed after 1992 are subject to the ADA’s Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities section of the ADA. Buildings built prior to 1992 don’t have to be retrofitted for wheelchair access but need to remove any architectural elements that can act as barriers to entry.
The construction date of many buildings in Sylva are closer to 1892 than 1992, so accessibility remains a work in progress.
“Advocacy is one of our core services,” Chuck Oaks, program manager at DisAbility Partners, said. “We make suggestions, but there is no one that is really an enforcement agency. The sad thing about that is usually no action is taken if the owners don’t want to, unless there is a lawsuit.”
Oaks said his organization is willing to work with anyone wishing to make facilities more accessible.
It’s an offer businesses here should be willing to take him up on. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good business.
After all, as Anglin said, “I think some people just aren’t aware that they need to make their businesses more accessible. Our folks spend money like everybody.”