Olathe & Southwest Joco

City-sponsored Olathe group acts a strong advocate for people with disabilities

At Kansas State University’s biosciences building in Olathe, podiums have sliding tops and computer monitors on articulating arms designed to help people in wheelchairs. <252><137>Local carpenters built podiums that have a sliding top along with articulating arms attached to computer monitors to accommodate people in wheelchairs that were on display at the Kansas State University Biosciences building on Friday, February 20, 2015, in Olathe, Kansas.<252><137>
At Kansas State University’s biosciences building in Olathe, podiums have sliding tops and computer monitors on articulating arms designed to help people in wheelchairs. <252><137>Local carpenters built podiums that have a sliding top along with articulating arms attached to computer monitors to accommodate people in wheelchairs that were on display at the Kansas State University Biosciences building on Friday, February 20, 2015, in Olathe, Kansas.<252><137> The Kansas City Star

When Perry Trammell was 17, he was thrown out of his pickup truck during a devastating accident, leaving him paralyzed.

He went on to become a successful graphic designer with his own web-design business. He worked at Pixar during the making of “Toy Story,” helping to create every shadow in the Oscar-nominated film, giving it that 3-D look. While in Roseville, Calif., during the 1990s, he also started a Little League team for people in wheelchairs.

Now the 16-year Olathe resident is the newest member of a small yet powerful group working to champion the rights of the disabled community in Olathe: the Persons With Disabilities Advisory Board.

“I’ve been in a wheelchair for 30 years, so I know how to make the system work,” said Trammell with a grin. “I joined the board because I want to help people like me. There have been so many times I’ve run into obstacles and barriers. My attitude is to simply fix it.”

The 15-member Olathe disability advisory board, founded in 1985, sponsors popular disability-related events throughout the year, works with architects to make sure buildings are above government standards, and oversees anything related to the disability community in the city. It serves as a resource and liaison for the disabled.

And it’s the only one of its kind in Johnson County.

“Everyone on the board strives to make a difference in the lives of other people,” said Chairman Mark Gash, who joined the board in 2004. “That’s what it all comes down to in the end. We just want to make life better.”

The board’s work is appreciated in the community, especially by the mayor, who is one of the board’s biggest fans.

“Olathe is a regional and national leader in championing for persons with disabilities because of our Persons With Disabilities Advisory Board,” said Mayor Michael Copeland. “Their passion for increasing awareness and appreciation for the special needs and contributions of our disabled is a shining example of the spirit of unity that sets Olathe apart. They have made a dramatic difference in our community, greatly increasing awareness of the disabled and the many valuable resources and opportunities available to them and partnering with a variety of organizations to assist them in reaching out to our disabled community.”

Gash and the other board members are grateful for the adulation but agree the success is not theirs alone.

“We’re lucky to have progressive-thinking people in all departments of the city, from parks and recreation to the police,” Gash said. “You can’t make a difference unless you have these types of people on your side. It’s a community effort.”

The affable gray-haired financial planner isn’t disabled, but the community has been a major part of his life for as long as he can remember. His younger brother has a congenital spinal disorder. His wife’s sister uses a wheelchair.

The board features a representative mix of the disabled, relatives of the disabled, and people who are simply fervent advocates.

The board has several projects under its belt. It’s in the process of re-applying for a grant to provide special fire alarms for the visually impaired residents of Olathe. It’s working with Mahaffie farmstead to create an disability-friendly stagecoach.

The board also is in talks to work with the design teams of the city’s new Embassy Suites conference center, the new Olathe high school and Olathe Medical Center to create above-government standards for each new building.

The changes are subtle and low-cost but vital for people with disabilities, Gash said. They include color contrasts between floors and walls, mirrors placed in elevators, proper height of light switches, and placing hand dryers adjacent to sinks.

The board works with the building’s designers on the blueprints. After each building is constructed, members of the board walk — or wheel — through the premises, testing them.

Their past work can be seen in the Olathe Community Center and Kansas State University’s Olathe building.

“Many of our buildings are world-class accessible, but you would never know it unless you have a disability,” Gash said proudly.

The board just wrapped up a busy season filled with two major events.

In the fall, it sponsored the KC Ability Expo and the Kansas Disability Mentoring Day.

Waves of children and adults were drawn to the fifth annual KC Ability Expo, which was held at the Overland Park Convention Center in September. Many of them were eager to participate in events such as Wheelchair Zumba, fencing lessons and basketball practice. They also couldn’t wait to try out the latest technology, such as a standing wheelchair or handcycles.

More than 135 vendors — representing nonprofit organizations and technology businesses — built a maze throughout the massive exhibit hall.

The buzzing scene is a far cry from the expo’s roots. It started as a Girl Scout Gold Award project in 2010.

Back then, Taylor Baker, an Olathe North High School senior, was contemplating ideas for her Girl Scout project, which is equivalent to an Eagle Scout project for Boy Scouts but must be sustaining in the future.

Baker was a volunteer on the disability board and learned that many people had a difficult time navigating their way through the web of nonprofit groups available for assistance.

At a board meeting, someone suggested she create a fair to help people with disabilities find the proper resources, and the ability expo was born. She joined forces with Olathe and the Great Mall of the Great Plains to create the event. It started with 35 vendors at the mall.

Next year the expo will use all three ballrooms in the convention center, in addition to the expo hall.

The event draws nearly 1,000 people from all over the region, from Omaha, Neb., to Des Moines, Iowa. Vendors come from all over the country.

Baker no longer oversees the all-volunteer event, but her mom, Christine Baker, has become one of its leading forces.

The reason for the expo’s success is simple: It’s a one-stop shop, said Christine, a member of the Persons With Disabilities Advisory Board.

“You can Google nonprofit disability groups online, but you’re swallowed up in a sea of random information,” she said. “We’re giving people with an array of disabilities the resources they need. When my daughter and I first worked on this event, we had a terrible time trying to find groups and what’s out there. I can’t even imagine a person doing this on his or her own.”

The concept was much appreciated by everyone in attendance.

Surrounded by whizzing wheels and curious spectators at the expo, James Watson echoed her sentiments while fitting a teenage boy into an adaptive race bike.

“If you’re in a serious car accident or develop multiple sclerosis, all of a sudden you’re stuck in a chair and thrust into a world where you don’t know what to do, and it’s overwhelming,” said Watson, of Wheelchair Sports Inc. “I mean, you don’t even know where to begin when it comes to what’s out there technology-wise or what resources are available. An expo like this one gives everyone everything in one place. That’s huge.”

Watson has been in a wheelchair since a serious car accident in 1996.

Having to rely on wheels is a never-ending learning experience, he said. There is always updated technology coming out, which he finds exciting. He thinks it’s important for people with disabilities to experience new things.

It’s one of the reasons he educates the community about the latest handcycles and adaptive bikes. Instead of selling them, his organization simply shows people what’s available.

“Being able to ride a bike is huge,” Watson said. “It provides freedom and exercise, which are important for healing mentally. It gives a sense of freedom and in turn, that creates confidence.”

People using wheelchairs do not have to be sedentary, he said.

“If sitting is your only position, you’re in trouble,” Watson said. “People were meant to be standing up. They were meant to be active. Physical activity is incredibly important.

“Technology like the standing chair, for instance, allows people more job opportunities and lets them be more social,” he said. “It gets the blood flowing.”

Alex Fraser, 19, whom Watson was helping saddle into a Top End Force RX race bike, wholeheartedly agreed. A diving accident on a spring break trip in Mexico last year left Fraser a quadriplegic, but it didn’t take away his craving for adrenaline rushes.

“There’s a lot to see at this expo, and it’s exciting,” said the Overland Park college student, eager to zoom away on wheels for the first time in what felt like ages. “These bikes are amazing. I’m hoping to get one and be out riding by summertime.”

As he sped off on the handcycle, his mom, Chris, watched him with a smile. She brought her son to the expo upon the recommendation of his rehab center. The experience was eye-opening for them, she said.

“It’s comforting to know that Alex can still do it all,” she said. “That’s exactly what we’re learning here. It’s awesome that technology allows him to ride a bike. I love that he can play basketball if he wants. We’re grateful for all the resources.”

A couple booths away, looking at a van, Laurie and Myron Reineke felt the same way. The Lansing couple brought their 13-year-old son, Anthony, to the event to play archery and shoot a couple of baskets.

Anthony, who has a benign spinal cord tumor, has been in a wheelchair for a few years.

“It’s hard when you have a child who hasn’t been in a wheelchair for very long,” Myron said. “This is all very new to him and us. So this fair has been extremely helpful.”

The event also gave the family a glimpse into the future.

“We’ve been seeing what kind of vehicles Anthony can drive one day and how he can learn,” Myron said. “It’s been encouraging. A little scary as a parent, too, because we know it’s not long before he’ll be old enough to be on the road.”

Across the room, dozens of disabled adults were learning that the seemingly impossible was very possible at a Wheelchair Zumba class.

Latin dance music blasted as wheels rolled to the beat, and people enthusiastically waved their arms, laughing and smiling.

“It was so much fun,” said Kim Wright-Johnson of Maryville, Mo., after the class wrapped up. “I’ve known about wheelchair dancing for a while but never tried it before today. For those in wheelchairs or using walkers, upper-body strength is incredibly important. If you don’t move it, you lose it.”

Outside the expo hall, paintings and drawings crafted by disabled artists were displayed for sale. During the expo each year, the creators are offered free space to showcase their work, and they get to keep all the profits from the sales.

The annual gesture is meant to show people the many talents of the disabled community and provide support for those who follow their passion.

A month after the ability expo, the Olathe disability board sponsored the Greater Kansas City Disability Mentoring Day at MidAmerica Nazarene University.

On a sunny, breezy Friday afternoon, dozens of physically and mentally disabled job seekers piled into the Bell Cultural Events Center, eager to hear speakers and learn skills that could help change their lives.

The job fair, organized by 30 volunteers, featured mock interviews, resume assistance, speakers, career counseling and recruiter booths.

Picking up literature at booths in the main lobby, James Heiben of Overland Park said the fair offered a day well spent.

“When you’re at a typical career fair, you’re fighting for jobs with people you can’t compete with,” he said. “It’s not that we can’t do things like everyone else. It’s just that we have to prove it, which can be frustrating. I really wish there were more events like this one, because they’re important.”

Other attendees agreed.

“The mock interview has given me more courage for when I go to a real interview,” said Sierra Starr. “Everyone here has been nice and friendly.”

Employers also were impressed by the event.

Tausha Hammett, the human-resources coordinator for Olathe who staffed the city’s recruitment booth, said the city has hired numerous employees from the Disability Mentoring Day in the past. She expects they will recruit more employees from the fair in the future, too.

The city has hired disabled workers for everything from customer service to custodial work.

“They need to look at jobs that play to their strengths and which they’ll get satisfaction and fulfillment out of,” she said. “Like everyone, they deserve a job where they love getting up and going to work every day. There are a ton of jobs out there for them. They just need to see the options. A fair like this can provide insight for them.”

Hearing the enthusiasm from both job seekers and employers throughout the day pleased Brian Ellefson, chairman of the Greater Kansas City Disability Mentoring Day Committee.

“When people find employment at this fair and share their success stories with me, it’s heartwarming,” he said. “It gets my juices going for next year, because it proves we’re doing something worthwhile.”

The community leader helped found the event 10 years ago to recognize October as Disability Awareness Month. It has now grown to two events, one on each side of the state line.

The Missouri event took place in the fall as well, at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation Conference Center.

Having the Olathe disability board sponsor the Kansas-side event was a no-brainer, Ellefson said. He sees the organization as a treasure because he doesn’t know another board quite like it.

The first year the mentoring day took place there were 13 job seekers. Now more than 100 show up.

He is optimistic by the growing numbers. After all, he said, 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. The statistic appalls him. He wishes more employers would look past the disability and see the ability.

“We need to get that number drastically lowered,” he said. “A lot of people with disabilities have the skills to work. It’s important to educate job seekers on how to pursue employment. We also need to educate more employers that this is a demographic they should be tapping into.”

Gash also said not many employers realize there are tax credits and grant money available to businesses accommodating employees with disabilities.

“The U.S. workforce is aging and shrinking, while the disability community is chronically unemployed,” he said. “There’s a lot they can do. Many of them are very dedicated, hard-working, appreciative and loyal. They arrive on time and they don’t waste time.”

The KC Ability Expo and the Disability Mentoring Day — and all the events that the disability board sponsors — aren’t just about giving the disabled community a voice but encouraging society to listen, Gash said.

Educating the public about the challenges, rights and capabilities of the disabled community is the board’s core.

Misunderstanding and misperception are some of the main reasons the disabled community faces challenges, he said. He witnesses it time and time again.

“My wife’s sister is in a wheelchair, and it’s amazing how some people will talk about her in the third person, in front of her face,” he said. “She’s right there. She can hear. She’s not deaf. But something about a wheelchair throws people off.”

He worries that a lot of people don’t become advocates for the disabled until it hits home.

“Unfortunately, it takes a family tragedy or personal tragedy for people to examine the issues,” he said. “Knowing the issues beforehand makes us a better community.”

But instead of dwelling on the negatives, Gash just works harder.

He’s already planning this year’s upcoming events. In the spring there’s a disability Easter egg hunt. In the summer the board sponsors Olathe as the greater Kansas City tour stop for Push America, a fraternal organization that conducts annual coast-to-coast bicycle rides for people with disabilities. In September, they host a booth at Johnson County Old Settlers Days and create a float for the parade.

The Olathe disability board is the only one like it in the county. It’s also unusual nationally, Gash said. But that’s not something he likes to boast about.

After all, he doesn’t want the board to be the only one of its kind. He wants it to be part of a movement. He wants to see similar success spread across state lines throughout the country.

“Occasionally other cities around the nation will ask us for the secret to our success,” Gash said. “I tell them the answer is easy. You get people with different disabilities together to volunteer their time, you create events, and you simply watch the enthusiasm snowball.”