• Izzy Stroobandt
    OCT 07, 2021

    Disability office chief outlines plans to build accessibility into infrastructure, hiring

    The Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities has been working with the Chicago Department of Transportation to make the city's pending e-scooter system more accommodating to disabled Chicagoans, the head of the office told aldermen Wednesday. [Hannah Alani/Block Club Chicago]

    The ​​Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities should work tightly with other city agencies to ensure accessibility is baked into new infrastructure, housing and other processes across Chicago, aldermen told the head of the office during a budget hearing Wednesday.

    The hearing saw many aldermen praising the ​​office’s responsiveness and thanking Comm. Rachel Arfa for her expertise in improving accessibility citywide. 

    Among aldermen who asked questions, the importance of the disability office working with other city agencies — including its sister agencies — was an omnipresent theme.

    Ald. Harry Osterman (48) told Arfa it’s “important that your department is involved” when the city spends infrastructure funds, including the $1.5 million “menu” funds spent annually by each alderman. 

    “I'd like to ask you, or a representative from your office, when I’ve got conflicts with bikes and senior citizens and want to look for innovative ways to use infrastructure so people don't get run over,” Osterman said.

    Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) and Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22) chimed in with similar concerns as both asked Arfa specifically about the office’s work with Chicago Department of Transportation. 

    “The city has been working to repair some rather shoddy infrastructure at our intersections and our [wheelchair] ramps, many of which are smashed apart and crumbling. More importantly to me is the use of the sidewalk and the many conflicts that exist there,” Rielly said. “I represent a lot of folks who have mobility issues, people who are visibly impaired, and there are certain modes of transportation that place folks with those disabilities at tremendous risk.”

    Reilly referenced an ordinance (O2021-2861being considered by the City Council to establish an electric scooter sharing program that would place up to 12,500 scooters on Chicago streets. 

    “I’ve seen so many near-misses, it’s challenging enough for someone who is blind or in a wheelchair to get around Downtown,” Reilly said. “My grave concern for the use of electric scooters on sidewalks is that they are silent, so for those folks who can't see, they also can't hear that vehicle coming their way.” 


    • Stop people from riding scooters on the sidewalk, aldermen tell officials planning new pilot

    • Aldermen skeptical of e-scooters as officials look to build them into permanent citywide network

    Arfa said her office is working with the transportation department to ensure all city-issued scooters will have location-detecting technology that prevents them from being used on sidewalks. 

    Arfa also said her office hosted two pilots “that we’ve learned a lot from,” like “where to leave the scooters,” Arfa said. She added that following outreach from disability advocates, her office pushed to add braille to the scooters so people could access the information and make a complaint. 

    Ald. Sophia King (4) asked if the disability office received direct funds from Chicago’s share of the American Rescue Plan. Arfa said no, but they’re “working with other departments who are.” 

    King also inquired about the disability office’s work with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), asking whether the office has an official counterpart in the system. Arfa responded saying her office has an accessibility officer assigned to CPS, but beyond that, “CPS has their own staff” that the office works with on events like this month’s transition fair at Malcolm X College.    

    An unprecedented opportunity for disability advancement

    The discussion also returned repeatedly to seeing the current economic landscape as “an opportunity to truly advance disability employment,” as Arfa said. “Right now is the time.”

    The office’s plans for 2022 include creating the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities Employment Center as a “central city resource for job seekers with disabilities and employers seeking to hire job seekers with disabilities,” according to budget documents. 

    Arfa said her office “will serve as a connector to aid people in navigating the job search,” for example, by helping decide “whether to disclose the disability and how to request additional services from employers.” The center would also offer training with assistive technology, according to budget documents. 

    Referencing the “connector” verbiage, Reilly asked if the office is “focused specifically at public positions, like jobs within the city and sister agencies, or whether the office “will be working to connect people with private sector employers.” 

    Arfa answered that the office does both, saying the office “has received requests from people with disabilities to have help finding a job and, at the same time, several calls from different corporations around the city who are asking how to find people with disabilities.”

    Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) referenced Arfa’s op-ed in the Tribune and described it as advocating for “trying to come out of COVID-19 in a different way,” by providing more jobs, accessibility to people with disabilities and “changing the labor force.” 

    Waguespack asked if the commissioner felt they “will have the resources needed...to advance those opportunities that you spoke of in that piece?”

    Arfa responded saying her office requested six new positions in this budget, assistance she feels will help the office accomplish its goals.

    Building on the conversation of how the city can seize on the pandemic to do things differently, Osterman said he sees in the vacant storefronts that accumulated during COVID-19 pandemic “opportunities where we can renovate and house people in an accessible way.” Arfa agreed, adding that her team is “hiring a project crew just to focus on accessible housing, including tracking where accessible housing is available.” 

    “I know you want to connect them, but what we’ve got to do is build it so it’s easier to connect,” Osterman replied. 

    Despite these potential opportunities, COVID-19 posed setbacks for the disability’s home modification program that Arfa anticipates the new-hires will help remedy, she said. 

    “During COVID, people weren’t comfortable with contractors coming into their home,” Arfa said. “We focused on outdoor modifications [until] the vaccine became available and people became more comfortable with people coming into their house.” 

    Under the budget proposal, the office would welcome a new “Program Director,” four “Disability Specialist[s]” and an “American Sign Language Interpreter” under the “Employment Services” division in 2022.

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