JOLIET – Ivan Bew just shook his head as he walked down Jefferson Street in downtown Joliet on a recent Monday afternoon, gripping his walker for stability.
The 25-year-old Joliet Junior College student with cerebral palsy had just missed the Pace bus he takes most days to reach his home on the city’s East Side.
“Looks like I’ll be waiting [another hour to catch the next one],” Bew said, after having spent the past 30 minutes on a previous bus that took him from JJC to downtown Joliet for his transfer.
And before that, Bew spent some time outside JJC’s main campus on the city’s west side waiting to catch that bus, which arrived late due to the Jefferson Street bridge’s temporary closure.
Unlike most other college students, Bew doesn’t have the luxury of driving to and from classes. He can’t on a whim visit friends on the weekends, with limited hours for public transportation Saturdays and buses not running Sundays.
The public transportation system Bew uses today is a vast improvement from the system available to people with disabilities in the decades leading up the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But that’s no excuse to stop fighting for change, he said.
“It’s not perfect. And we shouldn’t stop now, especially when countless people rely on it. Some people don’t have a car. Some people don’t have the money to pay for gas,” said Bew, who comes from a low-income household. “It would help everyone, not just people like me.”
While there’s much to celebrate about the 25th anniversary of the ADA, local advocates and individuals are now turning their sights to the future in hopes of building continued success.
‘A long way to go’
Sam Knight, community organizer at the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living, said the nonprofit continues its push for improvements in three key areas – public housing, transportation and building accessibility – through the group’s Accessible Will County Campaign.
“It’s about organizing the community, bringing everyone together,” Knight said.
“The ADA was a great piece of legislation. It’s a great accomplishment,” he said. “It looks at all the issues we’re still talking about today. Better housing, better public transportation, making opportunities more available for people with disabilities.
“But it still has a long way to go,” he added.
Take, for example, Pace’s Dial-a-Ride service. It’s confined in western Joliet by Plainfield Road and Larkin Avenue to the north and east, and Jefferson Street and Interstate 55 to the south and west.
It can connect riders with main routes and drop off people at destinations within those boundaries, but Knight said he’d rather see public transportation readily available and expanded to all parts of the county.
Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said he has a meeting planned for later this week with members of the WGCIL. He said he hopes to hear more about the group’s goals in providing accessible housing and improved transportation in the Joliet area.
“I want to hear what their needs are,” O’Dekirk said. “I think the goal would be to continue to work with the city. I think the city has done a great job in educating businesses [and bringing them] into ADA compliance.”
Pace Spokesman Patrick Wilmot said though the suburban bus agency is “proud of what has been accomplished” since the ADA’s passage in 1990, Pace “will be among the first to acknowledge that there are gaps in the service area and that we wish there’s more we could do to serve the community and promote independence.
“We do the best we can with the regional investment in public transit,” Wilmot said, while noting the agency is at risk of losing an $8.5 million paratransit grant from the state of Illinois in the fiscal year that started July 1.
Moving forward, Wilmot said Pace officials have goals of improving existing services in Will County, while continuing to invest in technology and working with riders, families and advocates to identify areas of improvement or expansion.
‘Looked at differently’
Sally Ritchey, a longtime employee with Trinity Services in New Lenox who in July 1990 attended the Washington, D.C., signing of the landmark legislation, said there unfortunately issues remain for people with disabilities that can’t be addressed through legislation alone.
“Things that involve people’s attitude and perception,” Ritchey said.
Ritchey said she’s a supporter of a national campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word,” a push to end the derogatory use of the term “retarded.” Though the term was once widely used for someone with an intellectual disability, advocates like Ritchey are pushing for an end to the term because it’s often inappropriately used to demean a person.
Through her long career with Trinity Services, Ritchey said she has found people often unfairly denounce others who have a not-so-obvious disability – such as chronic mental illness.
Ritchey said Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed steep budget cuts in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget – which slashes funding to a wide range of human services for autism, child care, community care, home services and public transportation – serve as a major step backward for nonprofits and social service agencies with the core mission of serving people with disabilities.
Ritchey said it’s challenging to convince people that tax dollars are not wasted when they go toward programs designed to help people with disabilities well into adulthood, she said.
“I think everyone can understand children with disabilities, but a lot of folks need lifelong support and assistance. As people get older, it becomes a lot more challenging to convince people that they should pay tax dollars for that,” Ritchey said.
“It’s really hard to convince people that those folks need support and not to see them as someone who is shirking responsibilities as an adult.”
Pam Heavens, executive director for the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living, said one of the nonprofit’s long-term goals is to develop more accessible and affordable housing in Joliet, as well in other areas of Will and Grundy counties.
She also wants to start working more closely with the city in encouraging more buildings to come into compliance with the ADA.
Public transportation remains a key issue in the region, she said. Without improvements, the lack of readily available transportation will continue to prevent people with disabilities from living with true independence, Heavens said.
She also wants to continue with the core mission of the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living – which is one of more than 20 advocacy nonprofits statewide run for and by people with disabilities.
For Ivan Bew, helping society as a whole understand his disability – how it “may seem different, but it’s not a problem,” is a priority for him as he edges closer to graduation at JJC with an associate’s degree in psychology.
“I was born with this. I know nothing else,” he said. “If anything, it just makes me more prepared to go out and be in the real world and be the best person I can be. Since I have a disability, it’s going to be an uphill battle to make sure I can prove myself.”
After a successful internship working with low-income children at the Hartman Recreation Center in Joliet, Bew said he learned he wants a career in social work or as an advocate for children like himself – those growing up with a disability and from a low-income household.
Bew said he hopes to help people, particularly children, fight the smaller, everyday battles.
“I didn’t have the best childhood. And now I want to help people like me,” he said.
“You know, you may not have grown up in the best circumstances, but you do what you can to make it better.”