Empowering Persons with Disabilities

By Elizabeth Wilkinson

More than 465,000 people in the Greater Phoenix Metropolitan Area are currently living with a disability. As that number continues to grow, Arizonans with disabilities will have a new, large-scale resource available for their use, situated conveniently in Phoenix.

On February 20, 2009 10 disability organizations in the Valley of the Sun will be celebrating the opening of the newly built, 62,000-square-foot state-of-the-art Disability Empowerment Center (DEC) of Arizona. The center houses the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Raising Special Kids, the Arizona Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society – Arizona Chapter, Joni & Friends, the Statewide Independent Living Council, Arizona Autism United, Valley Center of the Deaf, PRN Medical Services, Inc. and the Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association.

The DEC is a universally designed, accessible and transit-oriented non-profit resources center to serve the disability community. Its tenants will be provided with ample ADA parking in a four-level 373 space parking garage (69 van accessible spaces) and fully accessible administrative office space, meeting rooms, event space, roof-top terrace, a food service café, open courtyard, a fully accessible residential kitchen for independent living (IL) skills (includes accessible stove, oven, microwave and sink), computer lab, board of directors meeting room with state of the integrated audio-conferencing and 60 inch flat-screen television with laptop integration, and a one-hundred percent environmentally-friendly safe meeting room for people with multiple chemical sensitivities with separate air ventilation.

“The DEC offers individuals with disabilities and their families empowering programs and integrated services and is creating synergistic partnerships and collaborations that promote and enhance the choice, dignity, rights and responsibilities of people with disabilities and their families,” said Phil Pangrazio, executive director of ABIL.

The DEC serves as a national model for accessible design and collaborative programming.

In addition, the DEC includes a state-of-the art 3,500 square foot video conferencing center that includes 4 big screens, an assisted listening & looping system for the hard of hearing, and a catering service kitchen, all partially funded by the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. The DEC boasts spacious men’s and women’s restrooms located on both building levels with many ADA accessible stalls (10 in men’s, 9 in women’s), as well as, private restrooms in each. There are automatic door openers on all 4 public entrances and most tenant suites that requested them and lever-handle hardware on all office doors. Restrooms are equipped with electronic motion detected paper towel dispensers, electronic water facets in sinks, electronic soap dispensers and electronic flushing toilets. Lighting throughout the DEC is timed and motion detected. Two bridges connect the parking garage to the second level of the office building to ensure ease of access and evacuation in case of an emergency.

In addition, the DEC was built to be energy efficient and utilized safe building materials that make it 99 percent environmentally friendly. The building’s exterior is predominately aqua-green glass that provides abundant natural light for all work areas. Terra-cotta tile cloaks several of the DEC’s exterior walls to beautifully compliment the natural desert landscaping. The facility also includes clay cladding sun screens to maximize energy efficiency.

The opening of the DEC has far-reaching implications for persons with disabilities. The campus will allow persons with disabilities and their families to function in an environment where they are not hampered by the often inaccessible facilities found elsewhere. It will offer individuals with disabilities full and equal opportunities to participate in our community, supported by a facility that caters to their needs.

Because 10 organizations are located within the DEC, it will be much more convenient for persons with disabilities to access services – a sort of one-stop shopping location. An example: “I met with a woman who had questions about social security,” said Mortensen. “Some of her concerns were regarding legal ramifications, so I was able to refer her to the Arizona Center for Disability Law. Instead of driving all over Phoenix, she was able to get all of her needs met at the DEC.”

The DEC’s close proximity to Phoenix’s new light rail system, as well as various bus routes, will further ease concerns about accessibility, and the center’s hours of operation and proximity to other independent living services will encourage more participation in the community by individuals with disabilities and their families.

Future Opportunities

Future plans for the center include a universally accessible sports and fitness center for persons with disabilities that is being partially funded through the City of Phoenix 2006 Bond program and private foundations that include The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, the David Reese Family Foundation, Thunderbirds Charities, and the Rhett Butler Family Foundation.

There are wide reaching consequences associated with a non-active lifestyle, particularly among the disability community, including:

  • Decrease in productive and independent lifestyle
  • Decrease in educational attainment
  • Increase in drug/alcohol abuse
  • Increase in secondary health conditions
  • Increase in obesity
  • Decrease in self-esteem
  • Decrease in numbers of people with disabilities in the workforce

The fitness center is designed to bring people together with different types of disabilities of all ages and encompass not only the more cerebral aspects of wellness but also encourage physical fitness and nutritional health. This goal holds true for children growing up with a disability, adults who have acquired a new disability and are adjusting to it and older citizens who acquire a disability through the natural aging process.

The 45,000-square-foot sports, fitness and aquatics center will be the first of its kind in the western United States.

In addition to hosting competitive sports programs for persons with disabilities, the center will also accommodate fitness, health and wellness programs. It will feature spacious and accessible sports courts, runners’ track, pool, fitness/training equipment, locker rooms, showers and dressing areas for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

Currently, the only way for youth and adults with disabilities to access adapted exercise and fitness equipment and the concomitant supports that go with them is through expensive and inconvenient therapy programs prescribed by a doctor. Public and private insurance limits the number of visits per year even when medical necessity can be demonstrated.

The anticipated opening of the center is July 2010. With the addition of the fitness center, the DEC will develop into an even more comprehensive resource for persons with disabilities.

Elizabeth Wilkinson works for HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, focusing on strategic planning for non-profits and other organizations. For more information, please contact ABIL at (602) 256-2245 or www.abil.org.