The Access Evanston bus tour, one of the highlights of the inaugural Emergency Preparedness fair last weekend, took participants from South Boulevard to north of Ryan Field, pointing out the resources, pain points, success stories and works-in-progress for the approximately 18,000 Evanstonians who are part of the disability community. 

Patrick Hughes and Betsy Uzzell, two active volunteers advocating for the rights of the disabled, spent 90 minutes on each of the two tours educating residents, officials and visitors about Evanston’s progress on accessibility.

Bus tour participants for Access Evanston
One of the bus tour groups that looked at Evanston’s access for people with disabilities. Back row: Tony Johnson Middle row, from left, Pat Echols, Rose Jones and her daughter, Erica Jones, Betsy Uzzell, Patrick Hughes, Jonathan Barton and Brian Zeid. Front row: Tom Bobowski Credit: Wendi Kromash

Increasing awareness among the disability community about emergency preparedness is a big concern to the Evanston Fire Department’s Office of Emergency Management. It also includes helping the overall Evanston community be aware of some of the everyday struggles that those with disabilities experience.

Some of those people with disabilities joined the tour. Tom Bobowski uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. He offered commentary about his experiences traversing the city, both positive and negative.

“Bike lanes everywhere!,” he said. He would much prefer to be zipping around in a bike lane than being forced to use sidewalks or sharing a lane on the street with cars.

Erica Jones communicates with American Sign Language. She pointed out where she used to live, went to school and worked. Evanston educates many of the city’s multi-disabled students from Districts 65 and 202 together at the Park School on Main Street, Erica’s alma mater.

“Disabilities” includes those with mental illness, developmental disabilities or autism, deafness or hard of hearing issues, blindness or low vision, physical disabilities, the recovery community, and seniors, many of whom acquire some of these conditions as they age.

More than 30 buildings, businesses and outdoor spaces were discussed. The moderators pointed out the signs of progress:

  • Numerous small business owners including Cross-Rhodes Restaurant, Hecky’s Barbecue, Dozika Restaurant, and Jennifer’s Edibles proactively paid for ramps and/or large door bells, or fixed street curb cuts, to make access easier. 
  • Evanston Township High School offers American Sign Language as a foreign language.
  • The Department of Parks and Recreation committed to make Evanston’s beaches wheelchair accessible by next summer.
  • The Center for Independent Futures’ housing model, New Futures Initiative, is being copied in other parts of the country.
  • Multiple recovery meetings are offered throughout the day, every day of the week.
  • The commitment of the Ryan family to promote accessibility and influence Northwestern, from making the President’s house fully accessible to the design for the new stadium.
  • The fully accessible design of Fountain Square.

But there is more to do. The group shared stories of trying to get service at stores where signage promising assistance was met with blank stares by employees. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals can’t use drive-through technology without assistance. Lack of elevators in older buildings prevents many from accessing services. All of these issues are solvable, but they need vocal champions and financial commitments, according to Hughes. 

Later Uzzell addressed the isolation that can result when children with disabilities do not attend their neighborhood schools. In an email she wrote, “Not only do they not develop friendships with their neighborhood peers, the neighborhood children also do not benefit from friendships with peers with disabilities. It hurts everyone.”

The bus drove by Garden Park on the edge of South Boulevard Beach. Uzzell noted it’s a beautiful and accessible park, but the few handicapped parking spaces are located a ways away, on the south edge of the beach. To be truly accessible, the area needs more handicapped parking spaces near the park, she said.

New curb cuts now include a swath of light red raised dots. These raised dots add traction to the flat surface, making them nearly impossible to miss for those with walkers, wheelchairs and sight issues. Hughes pointed out the value of accommodations that address more than one population.

CTA and Metra transportation still have work to do to accommodate the disabled community. The CTA’s Purple line has nine stops and only three of them (Howard, Davis, Linden) are handicapped accessible, bypassing the stops closest to the two hospitals in Evanston.

When contacted on Sunday to get his impressions of the morning tour, Evanston Fire Department Chief Paul Polep was enthusiastic.

“Some things as the Fire Chief and at the Fire Department we can’t change, but we can definitely take a different approach when treating the handicapped community. I appreciate the passion Patrick and Betsy have when it comes to starting the conversation in this city,” wrote Polep in an email.

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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