GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nine years before President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, Disability Advocates of Kent County was hard at work pushing for accessibility for all people with disabilities.

Since its formation in 1981, disability advocates have used change as the paradigm to meet the needs of the most vulnerable across West Michigan.

“I think having a resource like Disability Advocates here is huge because disability doesn’t discriminate,” Patrick Parkes said. “It’s the only minority group that anybody can join at any time or that the majority can join. And so to know that there is an organization, and to know that there are folks who are thinking about these kinds of things ahead of time, should be a comfort to the community.”

Parkes, who lives with a disability, is the Absolutely Accessible Kent Business Development Coordinator. A long title with an even longer reach through his work.

While ADA was a major victory for people with disabilities, Parkes said it is the baseline and minimum for where accessibility for all should begin.

“How do you make the broader community more accessible to people with disabilities, knowing that it doesn’t just affect someone who has a disability today, but that physical needs change, cognitive needs change throughout the lifespan,” Parkes said. “And so when you design with disability in mind from the beginning, you really create a better user experience for everyone.”

An example, Parkes explained, is an automatic door at a grocery store. At surface value, it seems useful to someone like him in a wheelchair but it’s just as helpful to a mother or father pushing a stroller or a shopper carrying bags of groceries.

“How do we create an inclusive community? You may not need it today but odds are you are someone you know are going to need something tomorrow to help you navigate the world a little easier,” Parkes said. “I think it’s a bigger opportunity that we’re missing if we just think of it in more, I guess punitive terms, than really how do we innovate? How do we create a more welcoming community?”

Creating that welcoming community is part of the two-pronged mission of Disability Advocates of Kent County — walking alongside people with disabilities to help them live a more self-directed life and creating systems change. They do this through a number of different programs that help with housing support, workforce assistance, adaptive equipment, therapies and outreach initiatives for youth, families and veterans.

“We wanna work alongside them in support,” Parkes said. “So we’re equipping them as their own self-advocates but then we’re also helping them to live self-directed lives in line with their goals and their aspirations.”

Over the last year, the impact has become tangible through its new state-of-the-art home inside the Special Olympics Michigan Inclusion Center. Together, with other like-mission nonprofits, disability advocates moved into the new space and opened their Home Accessibility Center. It allows them to show some of the simple changes, adaptations or pieces of equipment that can be used to help make homes and other spaces more accessible.

“This is why we came here. We wanted to design something where people could actually come and see,” Judy Morris, occupational therapy program manager, said.

Her crew of six occupational therapists goes into homes for a full assessment to find out what changes might need to be made in order to make it a safe and comfortable living situation for any individual that has an impairment.

“We’re changing that environment to make it more suitable for that person because that disability or whatever that is, isn’t really gonna go away. Let’s work with what we have and bring in the needed support,” Morris said.

In 2022, Disability Advocates of Kent County made more than 400 home visits. (Courtesy)

Last year, they made more than 400 home visits and with the added space at their new facility, they can invite people in to see firsthand what those changes would look like and what kind of difference they make.

“It’s just great to know that people have support and that they can stay living independently in their home and feel safe doing that,” Morris said.

Morris says because of federal funding, they’re able to service Kent, Ionia, Mecosta, Montcalm, Osceola and Allegan Counties. Those dollars provided services and equipment at little to no cost for those in need. She says if they run into a scenario where they are unable to help, they make sure they find the right agency that can.

“It’s for all the people out there struggling who are in some way impaired,” Morris said. “What is it that keeps you from being or doing what you wanna do and being your best self and living independently?”

It’s an engrained value from their mission to create innovative change for accessibility, accessible to all.

“Anybody in any role that they have in society can positively affect disability policy and accessibility challenges,” Parkes said. “I mean, even if it’s as simple as just asking the questions, why isn’t our playground accessible for my child’s classmates who might have disabilities? Why isn’t this community park accessible? What can we do better? How can we improve the way that we’re interacting with our citizens with disabilities, knowing that it could be any one of us.”

Learn more about Disability Advocate of Kent County here.