Disability coordinator makes life more user-friendly

By Caren Burmeister
Resident Community News

Beth Meyer

Beth Meyer

One in seven people in Jacksonville has a disability and every one of them should have access to the city’s vibrant civic life, said Beth Meyer, the city’s coordinator of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sometimes it’s the little things – the things many of us take for granted – that can radically improve life for people with disabilities.
Like helping a blind person avoid crashing into a water fountain or another object that protrudes from the wall. Meyer’s office is working on a project to install cane detectors, a metal stand that looks like a bike rack, in front of water fountains and other objects so they can be detected by someone waving a cane.
That’s just the latest project underway. Since she took the position almost two years ago, Meyers started the annual ADA Symposium to educate architects and contractors on the Florida Accessibility Code so it becomes part of the early planning stages of construction.

She also bought a braille machine to give blind people access to public records such as City Council minutes, maps of the city’s parks and trails and the Duval County Jail inmate handbook.

Meyer has also led the charge to hire an ADA building inspector, revamp the Disabled Services website, and move disabled parking enforcement out of the Parking Division and back under the Disabled Services Division. She’s also overseeing a public-private project with the Home Builders Institute and the Jacksonville Job Corps to build free wheelchair ramps for low income families in the disability community.

Last month, Governor Rick Scott appointed Meyer to the Florida Building Commission.
“It’s unbelievable what she’s been able to accomplish in her short time there,” said Robert A. Jones, a member of the Mayor’s Disability Council and the Jacksonville Council of the Blind.
But Meyer faces some huge challenges, too.

Most pressing is Project Civic Access, a Justice Department initiative to make cities and counties throughout the country comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Jacksonville signed a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice last month to fix roughly 2,000 violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Jacksonville was one of 189 cities across Florida and the nation cited under Project Civic Access.

The violations range from minor to significant and include sidewalk access ramps, web-based services, and access to parking, polling places, emergency shelters and other city facilities that don’t meet the ADA standards for accessible design

By far, the city’s biggest task is building new sidewalk ramps along 3,600 linear miles of roads, streets and highways, Meyer said. Under the agreement, the city has five years to add curb cuts, mainly at sidewalk intersections.

Jacksonville has developed a Capital Improvement Plan to install curb ramps and improve sidewalk accessibility, a plan that solicits input from people with disabilities.
The Project Civic Access inspections occurred in 2008, so they didn’t include the Duval County Courthouse, a $350 million structure that opened in June 2012. Mayor Alvin Brown has authorized the city to pay to improve access to 112 courthouse doors and seek repayment that may be due from the courthouse contractor.
None of the progress would be possible, Meyer, said, without the support of Brown, who was recently recognized by the Mayor’s Disabilities Council for his commitment to improving civic access for people with disabilities.

“I’m grateful that the mayor cares,” she said.
Meyer said she doesn’t view the Project Civic Access violations as a criticism but as an opportunity.
“We’re doing a lot of great stuff here,” Meyer said. “We have to take care of this population. It touches everybody. We really want to be a national leader.”
She noted the Jacksonville area is blessed with many resources for the disabled community, such as Brooks Rehabilitation, the Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind and the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit group that helps wounded soldiers as they return home. That’s critical in Jacksonville, which has the country’s second highest veterans population, Meyer said.

Nareana, 9, of Biscayne Elementary School, said she loves the colors in the roller painting project

Nareana, 9, of Biscayne Elementary School, said she loves the colors in the roller painting project

“We have a lot of really good services,” she said. “People stay where they receive care.” Another one of those resources is the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, which recently hosted its 18th Annual VSA Festival to help students with physical and emotional disabilities “experience the beauty of art and demonstrate their own artistic abilities.”

The festival, which began May 7, drew 2,191 students and chaperones. The students engaged in hands-on projects like self-portraits, painting abstract landscapes and making wire and clay sculptures at eight studios throughout the museum’s galleries and gardens.

“We all benefit from being engaged, using our minds, hearts and hands when learning,” said Museum Director Hope McMath. “For children with varying abilities this is even more critical.”
The festival was assisted by 1,367 volunteers and was sponsored by Citi, Brooks Rehabilitation, the City of Jacksonville, the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, VSA Florida and dozens of other businesses and individuals.

The first day of the festival, JaNyiah, a 9-year-old West Riverside Elementary School student, proudly modeled her hot pink eyeglasses, a wire sculpture she made that drew praise from classmates in the garden studio. “I like art,” she said, holding her head up high.

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