BRATTLEBORO—Julie Tamler spoke to the room full of participants and guests at the second of the Inclusion Center’s recent community meetings.
“I’m scared,” she said.
Tamler, director of the organization — a no-fee, drop-in activity center for all people with disabilities — said at the Nov. 18 gathering that she was worried about what the next four years will look like for her disabled son and her community when Donald Trump becomes president of the United States.
On the campaign trail, Trump publicly mocked a disabled reporter and promised to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which has provided benefits and coverage guarantees to a number of vulnerable populations.
“My concern is, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will change in the next few years,” said Tamler.
“But regardless, we as a community will respect each other,” she said. “We’re going to be OK. We’ll take care of each other.”
Other attendees shared Tamler’s concerns, with one asking, “How do we maintain this community, especially in light of the things promised in the president-elect’s campaign?”
There were expressions of agreement with what one participant said: “This not going to be an easy U.S.A. to live in in the next four years.”
Inclusion in the community
To plan for the future, and to let public and private leaders know the challenges people with disabilities already face in trying to get around Brattleboro, Tamler and her associates at the Inclusion Center called the meeting, held in the basement community room at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.
Although Tamler said she invited a number of officials, including an officer from the Brattleboro Police Department, Town Manager Peter Elwell was the sole representative of the public sector, and Brattleboro Food Co-op General Manager Sabine Rhyne came to pledge the store’s continued support.
Other attendees included interested members of the Inclusion Center, the general public, and the press.
During the roundtable discussion, Elwell assured the group that town officials, such as those who work in his office and the members of the Selectboard, “are continuing” to comply with the ADA, and even go beyond the requirements of the federal law, signed into law in 1990.
Town officials’ actions “show [our] commitment [to the ADA] in new public safety facilities, such as the police and fire departments,” Elwell added.
“There’s an ongoing commitment among staff, but we face challenges, such as the age of the community and its infrastructure,” Elwell said, mentioning the town’s sidewalks as one example.
“We need to do better,” he admitted, adding that town employees intend to seek Representative Town Meeting approval for more money to maintain and remove snow.
“The town’s ADA Committee said we need more walking safety, especially with cleaning snow from sidewalk intersections and crosswalks” downtown, said Elwell.
He urged those who “have problems with accessibility” to talk to him about the infrastructure issues.
Making Brattleboro a welcoming community
One attendee asked Elwell if he was aware of any increase locally in “negative activity as we’ve seen against women, people of color, and the disabled in the rest of the country.”
“No,” said Elwell, “but we all need to be aware. It doesn’t end with participating in the democratic process.”
An attendee agreed with Elwell and mentioned his concerns about what kind of messages society is “sending to kids, when a person who says hateful things about other people can be president.”
“We can, as adults, provide an alternative to youth to model,” the man said, adding, “our responsibilities are not done once we elect someone. We still have to create the kinds of community we want.”
“We have a well-established foundation of being a welcoming community,” Elwell said, adding, “Brattleboro is a place where people do and should feel safe.”
Rhyne also expressed a commitment to making the Brattleboro Food Co-op “the most open and welcoming place,” and working to “reach out to all,” noting the store has a history of employing people with disabilities.
“Sabine is here representing the business community,” said Tamler. “The Co-op is a special place. It’s very accessible, unlike most places in town,” she added.
Rhyne and Tamler discussed the Inclusion Center working on an art project, with the theme of “kindness,” to display in the Co-op’s café.
“We need to find our joy,” Rhyne said, adding, “it’s not all about fear."
Inclusion in the arts
Two days earlier, another community meeting hosted by the Inclusion Center — this one addressing inclusion in the arts for people with disabilities in the greater Brattleboro community — was facilitated by members of VSA Vermont, a nonprofit whose mission is to “engage the capabilities and enhance the confidence of children and adults with disabilities” using art.
Held in the Selectboard meeting room, the gathering assembled members of a variety of local arts, social service, and activist communities to discuss what accessibility means in the arts, what could be better, and what resources the community has to achieve those goals.
As Tamler noted in the beginning of the meeting, “We have all these wonderful [arts] things going on, but they’re not accessible.”
As an example, she cited a puppet show at Living Memorial Park this past September by Northeast Kingdom performing artists Bread & Puppet. Tamler and her son Reuben wanted to go, but he uses a wheelchair and could not get to the outdoor hillside venue.
What attendees seemed to quickly realize is that they all wanted similar things: connections and resources.
The other point most agreed on: this meeting would have to be only the first of its kind, the start of more conversations, connections, and opportunities to do better.
“Where will we be in a year? I’m hopeful and excited,” said meeting moderator Toby MacNutt, VSA Vermont’s program manager and high school and mentoring coordinator.
At the gathering of representatives from Families First, Health Care & Rehabilitation Services of Vermont (HCRS), the New England Youth Theatre (NEYT), the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), the Gathering Place, the Vermont Workers’ Center, and the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center (BMAC), attendees were asked to named resources they already have.
They discovered one resource: one another.
“We’re looking for new opportunities to serve different populations,” said Erin Lovett Sherman, NECCA’s programming director. She mentioned the circus arts school’s new building, under construction off Putney Road, as having more accessibility for people with physical disabilities.
Sherman asked, “How can we be more accommodating in the future?”
MacNutt reminded attendees that the meeting could have “a ripple effect,” with attendees bringing the message out further into the community.
“There’s a lot of energy in this room,” he said.
MacNutt asked the group to carefully consider the question “What is accessibility?”
Some of the answers he gave went beyond making sure a person in a wheelchair can get in.
He cited other accommodations that allow all people to participate in arts events: ensuring sensory needs are met for people with hearing or visual impairments, and consideration of cognitive aspects like lighting and noise levels.
He urged arts organizations to ensure all staff have adequate information and professional development to know which aspects of the venue are accessible and how far they can accommodate a person with disabilities.
In MacNutt’s experience, organizations often do not do so, making for uncomfortable interactions with the staff and disappointment for attendees with disabilities.
“Arts are really fabulous with access because the arts are creative and flexible,” he said.
Tamler requested organizers of arts events carefully consider and honestly advertise whether the venue is accessible or not. Is there parking with a space to pull a ramp down from the vehicle so a person in a wheelchair can get out of the car, or space to lower an automatic plank? And what about bathrooms?
Another difficulty of inclusion: money
“The elephant in the room is funding,” said Charmion Handy, HCRS children’s coordinator for development services.
Vermont Workers’ Center president Ellen Schwartz asked if funding is available to hire sign-language interpreters for meetings, because this service is hard for her group to afford.
“How can we get more money for elevators?” Evelyn Trier of KidsPLAYce asked, noting the children’s play space — downstairs from Elliot Street — is not accessible to children with mobility issues or their caregivers.
Mary Fredette of the Gathering Place, an adult daycare center, reminded the group, “If we don’t do it together, it’s almost impossible to do it individually.”