MARC CHASE: Air show clears runway for disability access

2014-06-08T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Air show clears runway for disability accessMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
June 08, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Few things bother me more than watching region wheelchair users or other disabled folks struggling to overcome barriers created by bad planning of government officials or private businesses.

I've chastised region officials in past columns for calling in police to stare down wheelchair users during peaceful protests of accessibility issues.

So it's only right to applaud local agencies proactively working to ensure accessibility at one of the region's largest annual tourism events.

After taking a year off last year when a federal budget sequester grounded military show pilots, the South Shore Air Show is returning this summer in a new location, Fair Oaks Farms in rural Jasper County.

Plenty of criticism has been hurled at the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority by territorial folks angry the event won't be in Lake County this year. That's a dubious criticism. Gary, the longtime host site, no longer wants to host the event, and federal aviation officials have said other lakeshore sites would fall within restricted flight paths.

But what really can't be criticized is the regional tourism agency's steps to ensure folks who tread on two legs or two wheels will have equal access.

The South Shore CVA, shortly after brokering the deal with Fair Oaks Farms to host the air show, contacted a regional advocacy group for the disabled, Everybody Counts. The Merrillville-based group and its fiery leader Teresa Torres are letter-of-the-law experts on the Americans with Disabilities Act and its many accessibility requirements.

What resulted was a plan for the event in which accessible shuttle buses, equipped with wheelchair lifts, will be available to pick up wheelchair users right from their vehicles in a grassy parking area that otherwise might be tough to navigate by chair.

From there, Torres confirmed, the air show organizers will offer one-on-one services to any disabled patrons, transporting them to the central staging area, which will have short-cut grass, or any paved area of Fair Oaks. South Shore CVA spokeswoman Nicki Mackowski-Gladstone said the air show will be visible from any point at the farm.

The South Shore CVA also arranged for wheelchair-accessible portable toilets in addition to the already ADA-accessible bathroom facilities at the farm.

Torres said she has been "blown away" by the proactive approach for accessibility taken by air show organizers. She said she's more accustomed to fighting tooth-and-nail for ADA compliance from local government and other agencies in the region.

I tackled an investigative project a few years ago in which I spent several days in a wheelchair — accompanied by other actual wheelchair users — putting ADA accessibility to the test throughout Lake and Porter counties and south suburban Illinois.

Among the personal lessons learned were that navigating a wheelchair through high grass or gravel — or getting stuck in the entryway of a bathroom stall — are difficult and humiliating experiences. The air show organizers deserve recognition for charting a flight plan of equal access.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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