By Roger McKinney
JOPLIN, Mo. —
April Sidenstricker said the house she moved into in December has given her freedom that she never imagined before.
“It’s just really been a life-changing thing for me,” Sidenstricker said.
She lives in a new, fully accessible house on the 2100 block of Sergeant Avenue, which is part of the Hope Cottages development. Sidenstricker, 41, suffers from Cushing’s syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and fibromyalgia. She can walk for short distances, but only with great difficulty.
In her previous home, she said there were many steps and other obstacles, causing her to sustain several falls. She said living in her new house was effortless.
“It’s just a big sense of freedom,” she said. “I feel like I can contribute more.”
She said at times she had felt like more of a burden to her two children than a mother.
“I felt so helpless and useless,” Sidenstricker said of her life in her previous house. “I was sad all the time.”
Now she cooks, washes dishes and does most of the things she was unable to do in her previous home because of obstacles that existed. She is buying a power chair, which will allow her to do even more. Her previous house couldn’t accommodate a power chair.
Post-tornado, Joplin has built back to be more accessible than ever before to people with disabilities, said an advocate and others.
Public buildings, businesses, housing, parks, hospitals and schools have improved accessibility as they rebuilt after the May 2011 Joplin tornado. But some say many obstacles remain for people with disabilities.
Stephanie Brady is director of programs for Independent Living Center, which assists people with disabilities in remaining independent. She said the improvements can be seen in nearly every aspect of life in Joplin. She said many entities have contacted her for technical assistance.
“I think the community is doing a very good job,” Brady said. “The commitment the community has made toward accessibility is a very positive thing.”
She said city and school officials, the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team and master developer Wallace Bajjali Development Partners all have been mindful of planning and building to accommodate people with disabilities.
“They’re doing a good job,” Brady said. “The new library will be accessible. We’re very excited about the new library coming online. Even Mercy’s temporary hospital is accessible. The temporary high school at Northpark Mall is accessible. How the school achieved what it did at the school is amazing.”
Brady said accessible housing also has improved. She said apartments and houses that receive federal tax credits are required to have a percentage of the units fully accessible. Private apartments that don’t receive federal or state money must have basic features that have been written into building codes related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, but none are required to be fully accessible.
Hope Cottages will include 32 houses between Jackson and Grand avenues and from 20th Street to 26th Street. Becky Selle, with Springfield developer Housing Plus, said 22 of the houses are finished and 18 are occupied. The remaining houses are expected to be finished by May.
Selle said four of the houses were built to be fully accessible. The others are easily adaptable to become fully accessible.
“We use universal design,” Selle said. “They already have wider doorways.”
An article on the AARP website from Sept. 30, 2009, lists features of universal design homes, including step-free entrances, built on one level, wide doorways and hallways, reachable controls and switches, and easy-to-use handles and faucets.
“With the aging population, most seniors don’t want steps,” Selle said. “It makes it easier in the long term. You just don’t know when eventually you’ll need a fully accessible house. Building to universal design helps on the front end.”
Bryan Jones, with Midcontinent Equity Holdings in Stockton, is the developer for Katherine Estates apartments in Duquesne. He said he had worked closely with Brady at Independent Living in developing the plans.
Jones said of the 48 apartments, nine will be fully accessible. He said all will be two- or three-bedroom apartments with an area of 950 square feet or 1,200 square feet. He said he hopes to complete the apartments by the end of October.
Jimmy Cline, of Joplin, a consumer of Independent Living, is hoping to move into an accessible apartment at Katherine Estates when it opens. Cline, 71, lives in an apartment at Northpark Apartments, near Missouri Southern State University. Cline said the apartment is accessible, but it’s not ideal.
“The people that build these apartments should stop and think” about people with disabilities, he said.
Cline said he can walk only with a walker, and he also uses a power chair — which he refers to as his scooter — to get around.
He said he’s looking forward to moving into a new place.
“I’ve been pushing for that,” he said. “I’ll be the first to move in.”
Cline said the city needs to construct more accessible sidewalks at more locations.
Brady said she thinks businesses that have rebuilt since the tornado for the most part have done a good job in keeping people with disabilities in mind when rebuilding.
“They’ve done well with making sure they’re accessible,” Brady said. “At Cupcakes by Liz, they have the wide doors at the entrance and to the restrooms. Wal-Mart Inc. and Home Depot have been very, very accommodating to people with disabilities.”
Brady said several businesses consulted with Independent Living Center in rebuilding.
Cline said the rebuilt 15th Street Wal-Mart is much improved and is his favorite place to shop.
“Wal-Mart, they’re accessible,” he said. “I usually do all of my grocery shopping there. It’s improved 100 percent.”
Sidenstricker disagreed, saying the aisles are still too narrow and some aisles have pillars in the middle of them.
“The new Wal-Mart, it’s almost impossible to maneuver around,” she said.
She said other businesses, especially those at Northpark Mall, are difficult for someone with a disability to navigate in a wheelchair or power chair.
Liz Easton, owner of Cupcakes by Liz, at 2310 S. Main St., said she was very conscious of being accessible to people with disabilities when planning her building. She said city officials were very helpful with advice. She said many of the measures for accessibility also are helpful to her customers who are simply overweight or pregnant.
C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin School District, said officials have spent many hours to ensure that its new buildings will be accessible to people with disabilities, even exceeding the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We’ve gone above and beyond to make sure anybody with a disability is included,” Huff said.
He used as an example the access to the stage in the auditorium at the new East Middle School. He said it has been designed in such a way that someone with a disability has easy access to the stage without attracting attention.
“We try to be very innovative with that,” he said.
He said the Joplin High School building that was destroyed by the tornado didn’t meet current ADA standards.
“On the new construction, we have an opportunity to do things better,” Huff said.
Though the district had a short time frame to complete the temporary buildings, those also are accessible. Huff said the interim Franklin Technology Center was the biggest challenge to make accessible.
Brady said she agreed that what the school district is doing in terms of accessibility is innovative.
“The new buildings that they are doing are extraordinary,” she said.
John Farnen, executive director for strategic projects for Mercy Hospital Joplin, said the new hospital will exceed the requirements of the ADA and will go beyond anything that could have been done to the building destroyed in the tornado.
“This facility will exceed by far the ADA standards,” Farnen said. “Even the patient rooms are larger rooms, with plenty of room around the beds and ADA restrooms in the patient rooms. This will have a lot of advantages over the older facility.”
Farnen said that Mercy’s interim building also meets ADA standards.
Robert Lolley, Joplin transportation coordinator, said all 12 vehicles in the city’s fleet are fully accessible to people with disabilities. Those include Sunshine Lamp Trolleys and Metro Area Public Transit System buses. Lolley said many of the riders are elderly.