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In September, the Bridge Builder Project began as a partnership between Evanston’s Center for Independent Futures and the Wilmette-based JJ’s List. Funded by a grant from New Trier Township, the project aimed to help local businesses become more disability-aware. However, the funding ended in March and the community is left wondering whether the newfound awareness will continue.

Bridge Builder Project team member and CIF staff member Sharon Purdy says yes. Teaming up with Jake Joehl, a CIF client and volunteer with JJ’s List, Ms. Purdy said “There’s no way we could stop this now. We have put out so much information.”

Although the project may be over, Ms. Purdy said the ultimate goal of JJ’s list and CIF is to continue to be invited to places in order to teach them how to be more disability-aware. “What makes people uncomfortable is when they don’t understand,” she said.

Understanding is what these two organizations do best. Ms. Purdy explained that CIF provides support for individuals with disabilities and their families, while JJ’s list provides training and employment opportunities for them.

Dr. Jane Doyle, executive director and co-founder of CIF, said the project went very well. “We found that first from the individual perspective [customers with disabilities] found new skills they never had before – things like computer and social skills,” she said.

Mr. Joehl, who has a visual impairment, said he learned about scheduling and how to stay on top of things. “We learned letter writing. We wrote letters introducing ourselves and the project, and we wrote thank you letters. Then we made follow-up calls and visits,” he said. Helping those with disabilities build valuable social and job-related skills is just one of the benefits of the project.

Teams consisted of one person with a disability and one without. “Each team visited six businesses,” said Mr. Joehl, “and they were all from Wilmette, Winnetka, Northfield, a few in Evanston and some in Northbrook.” The teams passed out materials with tips, including a poster, fact sheet and window cling to let customers know they are disability-aware. Businesses were also urged to join JJ’s List, a website where people with disabilities find and review places to go.

On the business side of the project, Dr. Doyle said, the reception was positive overall. “Businesses were unaware of the consumer base,” she said. They became aware of what they intentionally or unintentionally did to make things harder for people with disabilities, she said.

Although some places needed to make changes, others were already very helpful. “Most of them, I think, were pretty aware already when we walked in and they welcomed us,” Mr. Joehl said.

 To keep spreading the efforts to new local businesses, Dr. Doyle said she is working on plans to keep it going. The project is seeking funding from other organizations and sending reminders to participating businesses to continue awareness.

“It feels good to know we taught so many people,” said Ms. Purdy. “It has been very fulfilling.