By Monique Runzer
Businesses can impede or enable access, participation, and inclusion in society depending on how they are planned and built.
The following two individuals never envisioned themselves being in wheelchairs. Both were born non-disabled and experienced life-changing accidents that almost took their lives. However, they don't let their challenges with mobility slow them down or keep them from enjoying all that Hamilton has to offer. Here is a look inside the minds and hearts of two Hamilton residents.
Shawna Smith has been a Hamilton resident for the majority of her life. She was a very active child and a typical teenager that enjoyed playing many sports, including cheerleading. All that changed dramatically on December 23, 1991, when she was in a horrific car accident at sixteen that almost ended her life. The accident resulted in her being impaled by a fence post, and her parents were informed the likelihood of her survival was very low. Shawna was in the hospital for six months after her accident, two of those months in a coma. She underwent many surgeries and a lot of rehabilitation, pushing the limits to gain back some movement in her extremities and learning how to navigate the world. The thought of not graduating High School or being able to attend college kept her going those first few years after her accident. She graduated from High School on time and attended Miami University. She never let her disabilities define or keep her from setting goals and following her dreams. She is the Wellness Coordinator for Butler County, a Realtor for EquiRealty Group, an independent Property Manager, and runs her non-profit, He is Faithful Ministry, which helps people with disabilities gain access to transportation and equipment. Shawna even wrote a book about her life titled Journey to the Promise. Her faith in God runs deep, and she believes that "God has me here for a purpose, and that is to give people hope."
Randy Harper is from Fairfield Township and has been a resident of Hamilton for the last five years. Before his accident, he owned a construction company that kept him very busy; Father to two young children and a lover of "boy toys": ATVs, dune buggies, you name it. Eight years ago, while on a camping trip, he experienced a life-altering accident while driving a dune buggy exploring the trails around the Competition Hill Climb at Black Mountain, Kentucky. While trying to turn his dune buggy around on a narrow path, he plummeted over the side of a hill, falling two hundred and fifty feet before hitting the ground and then rolling downhill an additional two hundred and fifty feet while the dune buggy repeatedly smashed against his body. His riding partner was a Doctor who did not have any severe injuries. Randy was bleeding very badly from his arm and stopped breathing. His riding partner quickly tied a tourniquet around his arm to slow the bleeding and administered CPR, ultimately saving his life. Still, the accident left him with a broken neck and extreme paralysis. He was in the hospital for a very long time after the accident and spent a lot of time in rehabilitation. Gaining the ability to sit up took over three months alone.
Shawna Smith pictured left
Randy admits that not only did his accident significantly change his physical abilities but also his outlook on life and people. "I really didn't like people before. I love life much more now. I am so very happy now". He loves to get out and about in Hamilton's DORA district, be it meeting up with friends to play Singo at Municipal Brew Works or attending concerts at RiversEdge. He is a resident of The Marcum Apartments and said one of the main reasons he decided to live there is that when he went to look at a model, The Marcum associate put out a ramp for him as soon as she saw him approaching in his wheelchair.
So here's the question. How accessible is Hamilton for people in wheelchairs? On a grading scale of A-F, I asked them what grade they would give Hamilton regarding accessibility. They both gave Hamilton an "A," but when I pressed further, it was clear that Shawna and Randy are outspoken go-getters who speak up and make things happen that don't just benefit themselves but many people in our community. They encounter accessibility blockers often, as many others do in our community.
Randy was unable to enter the front door of The Marcum unless someone was there to let him in because they did not have an automatic door. He spoke with management at The Marcum and explained his situation. Seven months later, an automatic door was installed. Additionally, there was only one ramp access point to the businesses housed next to The Marcum. He had to go all the way around the building to access Casual Pint since there was only one ramp by Tano's. He once again contacted The Marcum to see if they could install a ramp by Casual Pint and was told that they had met all of the ADA requirements and that if he wanted another ramp installed, he would have to contact the City of Hamilton. So that is just what he did. The City asked him to detail his request with photos and drawings. After reviewing what he provided to the City, they told him that adding a ramp where he was asking to did not require a permit. He would need permission from The Marcum to have the ramp added. Randy, taking matters into his own hands, gained approval from The Marcum to have the ramp added and paid for the installation himself. $1,600.00 later, a ramp was installed. These are just two examples of Randy's proactivity that has led to accessibility enhancements within Hamilton. He loves to venture out and explore all our City has to offer. "I've traveled from The Marcum to Flubs on Eaton Ave in my chair, leveraging the bike path and backstreets," I asked him if he ever encounters dead ends where he gets stuck due to a sidewalk ending, stairs, etc., and he said it does happen. "When trying to cross the High Street bridge towards Park Avenue, the sidewalk ended. I contacted the City, and it was fixed quickly."
Shawna also encounters accessibility blockers such as a lack of businesses with automatic doors, sidewalks ending and rough transitions from the streets to the sidewalks, saying that sometimes there is a little lip of concrete that is hard to navigate over. "There are many businesses I would love to frequent in Hamilton, but I cannot enter those businesses because they do not have ramps." Something as routine as going to the grocery store can uncover blockers. "Kroger & Meyer have small baskets I can put on my lap while I shop, but Walmart does not. Providing access to motorized chairs with built-in baskets doesn't help me since I cannot transfer myself from my chair to the store-provided chairs". She also noted that the lack of accessible parking spots is an issue.
Shawna's message to the City is, "Great job on the developments thus far, but how about getting people like her included in planning?" They aren't in wheelchairs, and they don't know. There is a lot of talk about inclusion in our City, and people with disabilities could share a wealth of information and insight."
Randy shares the same sentiment. "For the most part, I don't have to think about how I will get around when exploring Hamilton. I have made some great friends within the businesses I frequent, and I'm not afraid to ask for help". "People are willing to help. Don't be afraid to explain what kind of assistance you need". An example of this is when he goes to the Dollar Store. They do not have an automatic door, so he has to flag down someone inside to open the door for him or wait for someone to enter the store.
Both Randy and Shawna want to live life to the fullest. Randy said it's pretty simple. "You can choose to be happy or sad. Accepting what has happened to me gives me the freedom to move forward". "My relationship with Christ helps me get through every day."
"I am not a disabled woman. I am a woman with a disability," says Shawna. I want to enjoy the fellowship Hamilton is known for, and I want people to know I am just like everyone else."
They both said that if you are curious about how they ended up in a wheelchair, ask. It allows them to "tell their story" and hopefully inspire others.
Having a disability places you in the world's largest minority group. Around 10% of the world's population, or roughly 650 million people, live with a disability. The most common disability type, mobility, affects 1 in 7 adults. Between 2020 and 2040, disability rates at older ages will rise by more than two percentage points, to about 28 percent, as the older population ages rapidly.
As a marketer, I encourage business owners to experience their businesses as a patron and to do it often. Order just like everyone else, use the bathrooms, sit at a table, and become a customer. Why not take it one step further and put yourself in a wheelchair? Do your bathroom stall doors swing inward, making it very hard to enter and turn around in a wheelchair? Are all your tables high tops? Do you have good accessibility ramps and parking? A checkbox on your construction form stating that you have "met ADA accessibility standards" may just not be enough.