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From the CEO: Judgement

In talking with someone recently they inquired about how I could help their friend who was waiting for approval for “Disability” for a medical problem. The same day I learned of a child who would be born with Down Syndrome. Each would use the word “disability” in their lifetime, but the paths would be very different.

AWS Foundation works with the community to make a more accessible Northeast Indiana for everyone. When we do this then anyone with a disability has the potential to benefit. The word “disability” is used often and means many things to many people. While both the friend with the leg amputation and the child with Down Syndrome are seen as having a disability, how they are perceived and judged in a community are very different.

I, too often, hear generalizations about those with disabilities including:

  • “I feel sorry for the disabled…of course we should help them”
  • “The disabled have the ability to work…cut their benefits and then they will have an incentive to get a job”
  • “People should have to qualify for disability every year”
  • “Most people with handicapped parking are just lazy”

The intent of this brief column is not to provide a primer on waivers or differentiate Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) rather it is to encourage each of you to stop and think before speaking or judging. Many disabilities are invisible. Disability can, and likely will, come at any time in our life. Some are at birth and some come later in life after years of crippling work that caused the disability. Some disabilities are temporary, and some are life-long, but every person, regardless of their abilities, deserve to be part of our community without judgement.

  • The person parking in the blue parking space may have limited strength or they may have a passenger you did not see.
  • The child you see screaming at the store may not be the result of a parent who doesn’t know how to manage a temper tantrum. Perhaps the child has autism and the store causes sensory overload, but parent needed groceries with no childcare options available.
  • The family down the street may have had multiple failed attempts with jobs or services for their child. Staying at home and getting regular monthly checks is a consistent income source that provides their only known secure and safe environment for their child.

March is Disability Awareness Month. I would ask you to do me a favor. Acknowledge that each of us has differing abilities rather than disabilities. Consider the thought that you may not know the challenges. I would ask you to stop before you jump to judgement. Financial assistance from the government is not a windfall but a safety net. I would ask you to search for a way to make your neighborhood, your church, your school, your workplace, your community just a little more welcoming, just a little more inclusive and just a little more accepting of everyone.

From the CEO: Promenade Park

Woman poses on a sunny day in Promenade Park with a man in a wheelchair.

Patti Hays & Kevan Chandler

A Park for everyone!  That was our goal for the new riverfront park that was being designed…and it didn’t disappoint.

In August of 2015 AWS Foundation made a $200,000 grant to the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne. With the $100,000 match funds from Lilly Foundation, there was $300,000 to ensure the proposed new park would be accessible.  But what did that mean?

In partnership with The League and with Turnstone, a focus group was assembled at Design Collaborative to review the proposed design as initially drafted.  In a room filled with experts in landscape architecture, planning, park design and operations a group of 10 individuals and their families,  representing a variety of abilities, bravely provided their ideas and critiques.  They each wanted the park to be their park.  In that group were individuals with visual impairment, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, Down syndrome, arthritis and other disabilities. Suggestions were well received and plans were redesigned.

Man hods white 3D printed map of Promenade Park for those with visual impairment to find their way around.

3D Printed Map of Promenade Park

On August 9th, the residents of the City of Fort Wayne saw what happens when the goal is to build a shared public space following principles of not just ADA, but universal design.

  • Kids will play side by side in the inclusive playground with a rubberized solid surface base
  • Concerts can be viewed from any location of the grass lawn for those in wheelchairs, or others with walkers or strollers because of the solid base
  • Every level of the seating at the riverfront amphitheater is accessible by ramps
  • Easy in and out of kayaks because of the floating dock
  • Doors to the pavilion spaces are all equipped with electric door openers
  • Accessible bathrooms include family restrooms within the pavilion and adjacent to the beer garden
  • Easy and safe entrance to the accessible Sweet Breeze canal boat from the south dock
  • Tree canopy trail has easy entrance for all from street level with gradual ramping and strategically placed benches for resting along the path
  • A tactile ribbon circumnavigating the park (along with a follow along 3-D relief map) for those visiting with visual impairment
  • Water features including a splash pad within reach for all
  • Even the worn surface of the iconic Wells Street Bridge was refinished to a smoother surface to minimize gaps and provide a less bumpy path to traverse the St. Mary’s River


The city park commission and area donors and businesses all joined in ensuring accessibility was within their funded area of the new Promenade Park.  Opening day crowds were, as we had hoped, representative of a cross section of northeast Indiana.  The smiles on everyone’s faces were the reward for the work of so many. A special thank you is extended to all who played a role in the park visioning, design, creation and implementation.  It was a truly collaborative gift for all.

Promenade Park: The Park for Everyone

We often say that when you design for disability, everyone benefits. Our new office is designed universally, but we also challenge others in the community to think beyond ADA requirements. Fort Wayne Parks added details to the new Promenade Park on the riverfront to ensure that all can enjoy Downtown Fort Wayne’s newest destination. With the help of a team made up of representatives from several disability focused organizations, they created a park that is truly for everyone.

The great thing about true inclusion is that many of the accessible features are not obvious to those that don’t need them.  A tactile ribbon runs along the path in the park. To those without visual impairment, it’s a nice design feature. However, paired with a 3D printed map of the park, the ribbon allows those with visual impairment to find their way. You will also notice more frequent seams in the concrete so that those who struggle with depth perception, such as individuals with Parkinson ’s disease, will not lose focus on the path. Even after heavy rain, the lawn stays firm due to a special layer beneath the surface that enables drainage. Those using wheelchairs, crutches, or strollers can easily access the lawn and enjoy the grass!

More obvious accessibility features are also present. The family restroom inside the pavilion includes a changing table large enough to fit an adult, respecting the dignity of all park visitors. Speaking of restrooms, two of the three stalls in the restrooms are large enough for a wheelchair and there are large restrooms on the back side of the pavilion as well. The tree canopy path is wide enough for those in wheelchairs to access the great view. Benches and swings are ample in the park, making it easy to find a spot to rest. A floating dock allows for the ability to hop into a kayak from a wheelchair and all docks have detectable warning strips for those with visual impairment.

Side-by- side recreation is integral to full inclusion, and this park delivers. The playground features accessible, as well as sensory stimulating play. The soft rubber surface allows wheelchairs to access each part of the playground while still providing a soft landing in case of a fall. Slides begin at the path so there are no ladders to climb to the top.  Large musical instruments create an inviting experience where kids and adults can make music together. On the other side of the river, a concrete wall designed as seating has wheelchair access at every row, meaning you no longer have a secluded section. The splash pad is zero entry, and is at the end of a stream that you can roll or walk up to cool off on a hot summer day.

Think about these features. How many of them do you feel that, even if you don’t have a disability, could enhance your experience in the park? Anyone with a stroller can take advantage of most of these features. Everyone can benefit from the lawn that remains firm. We are excited for everyone to make use of all this park has to offer and play side-by-side with neighbors and friends of all abilities. Join us at the grand opening on August 9th.

From the CEO: Americans with Disabilities Act

In July 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure equal rights for all, regardless of their abilities. As with other civil rights laws, ADA’s intent was to address inequities in employment as well as community interface for those with disabilities. ADA defines disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity”.

Justin Dart, the “Godfather of the ADA”, was in a wheelchair because of the effects of childhood polio. Pictures of the signing of ADA, the marches and protests include individuals with physical disabilities climbing the stairs of the capital. But there are other barriers for today’s employees searching for a job.

Architects know the rules around ADA; signage in braille, counter height requirements, accessible restrooms, manageable slope of ramps, etc. ADA directed a virtual transformation of physical workspaces. ADA prohibits employment discrimination based on disability and requires reasonable accommodations be provided. But in a time of online commerce and virtual schools and workplaces, how does ADA fair for today’s job candidate?

This past weekend, my schedule was fueled by my phone. I checked the time for the summer church schedule and which pastor was preaching that morning, I checked a time for a yoga class and what new movies had been released this week. I confirmed tickets and a hotel for a weekend getaway in August. I even read a regional newspaper online. You can see where I am going with this.

In 1990 there were no smart phones and it was the minority of homes that had home computers. Websites were seldom visible and rarely accessed. How would your life and your ability to interface with your community change if you were unable to access the internet?  There is now a request in front of the Supreme Court to hear a claim demanding that the ADA be applied to the internet thus demanding equal access. The claim is being made by a man who is blind and was unable neither to access Domino’s website for delivery nor to receive the promoted discount for ordering online.

We continue to see job descriptions that list “ability to type” despite the fact that voice recognition software is available and considered a reasonable accommodation. Face to face interviews may be overwhelming for some with autism. A phone interview may require TTY and TDD or a service for hearing impaired applicants. We continue to see too many companies who provide only online applications as the entry to employment for their organization.

What was a landmark piece of legislation almost 30 years ago is being reexamined in light of today’s understanding of disability. Look at your application process. Are your job descriptions inviting to those who may need accommodations for both application and for employment? Is your website fully accessible? If not, consider a website update and modification of your procedures.  Look at a typical day’s activities and ask what accommodations you could provide to help people of differing abilities to complete that task.

Creating an Inclusive and Sensory Friendly Community

Did you know that we have some amazing organizations in NE Indiana who have been actively providing and creating sensory friendly environments? A sensory friendly environment is one that offers accommodations for auditory, visual, and olfactory stimulation. Many sensory friendly spaces and places also accommodate communication and social/emotional needs of individuals of all ages and all abilities. Communities are learning that many environments that, at one time would not have seemed like a good fit for some individuals with disabilities, can be welcoming, enriching, and accessible for ALL.

In NE Indiana, sensory friendly environments come in many shapes and forms, ranging from Special Abilities Days at Science Central and McMillan Health, to sensory fanny packs at the Greater Fort Wayne YMCA, and sensory friendly performance at The Civic and the Fort Wayne Ballet – and everything in between. AWS Foundation is working on posting all of these amazing opportunities on our website and Facebook page, so stay tuned.

As we have had the honor to work with organizations who are taking into consideration the needs of individuals who might have sensory needs, we decided to try something new. On June 4th we brought together 30 individuals representing 10 different organizations in NE Indiana who are either currently, or in the planning stage, of building more inclusive environments. These incredibly busy folks gave up 2 ½ hours to learn with us about best practices in creating both inclusive and sensory friendly environments.

The group was joined by a team from the Wabash Miami Area Program, including an Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, and Autism Leader. In addition, AWSF staff shared some collective knowledge and experiences to support moving the bar forward in supporting ALL individuals in our community environments.

In response to learning more about what 3D technology can offer to both those with tactile sensory needs and those with vision needs, Cole Finney from Science Central shared… “I was inspired by the discussion we had at the meeting. I am BEYOND excited about the idea of bringing 3D-printing technology to Science Central to better present the many textures of our reptiles.”

Rebekah Coffey from the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne is already implementing strategies and using tools she learned during the session.  In response to a ‘make and take’ portion of the meeting, Rebekah shared that she is already showing off the universal flash cards at the Y.  She has also been discussing another tool that was shared – using visual schedules for children during transitions. Rebekah  told us, “I have had feedback from parents about how a visual schedule assists with their child’s transitions and I feel more confident in providing this resource.”

One of the most important outcomes of the day was being in a collaborative environment and hearing from the many organizations who are offering programs and addressing sensory needs. Learning from each other is critical as we move to becoming a more inclusive and sensory friendly community.

Now that you know…additional meetings are being planned to take place quarterly.  If you work for an organization who would like to get involved with this collaborative, please email Joni Schmalzried at

From the CEO: Inclusion in the Arts

The first Broadway play I ever saw was in 1980, the Tony winning Children of a Lesser God with actress Marlee Matlin portraying a deaf janitor. I was mesmerized in the fluid dance-like sign language that was so much a part of the play. Matlin is the only deaf performer ever to have won an Academy Award when she later portrayed that same role of Sarah Norman in the movie of the same name.

Earlier this month we witnessed a first when Ali Stroker won a Tony for her role in Oklahoma. This time, instead of the choreography of American Sign Language (ASL), we saw the challenging dance performances that included this woman in a wheelchair. Who would have considered casting the enduring and coquettish Ado Annie with an actor in a wheelchair?

Patty Duke played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker and received a Tony for her performance in 1962. She was recognized as a great actress in light that she was able to so convincingly portray a deaf and blind girl. At that time it was inconceivable to have had a woman with an actual disability on stage.  Bradley Cooper portrayed John Merrick in The Elephant Man and Daniel Day Lewis was Christy Brown in My Left Foot. There are many other great roles of individuals with disabilities who are too often portrayed by able bodied actors.

The author of Oklahoma envisioned a character who was flirtatious and naive when Ado Annie’s role was written. These are not attributes restrictive of a person with a disability. In her acceptance speech Stroker said “There’s a wealth of great performers who identify with having a disability that deserve stage time…”

In Fort Wayne recently, Summit City Music Theatre made performances of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown more welcoming when cast members were added who signed during the performance. This was not an interpreter standing off stage but were ensemble actors, often center stage, signing the entire production.

We make strides in recognizing all abilities when a deaf actress portrays a deaf character. But when actors with visible disabilities portray roles whose descriptors are silent regarding senses, height, mobility or other attributes, then we have a more open and fluid sense of community. CBS has recently pledged to work for authentic representation in entertainment casting to audition actors with disabilities and to cast and hire people with disabilities.

As a community we continue to work toward the vision of an inclusive arts community. Audiences are increasingly diverse. There is still opportunity to ensure that the stage is fully accessible to all. Previous casting types do not have to dictate future. How can we accept Ali Stroker’s charge to be sure that backstages are accessible? When we see individuals like ourselves in a role then we learn that role is available for us!

I can’t say “NO”

10 Years of Celebrating Abilities by: Andie Mosley

Seldom do we get the opportunity to meet the individuals impacted by our grantee organizations. Sometimes we attend sensory-friendly events or tour an organization, and it’s great to see individuals with disabilities thriving in the community. However, my personal favorite time of the year is the disABILITIES Expo where we are all in one place together. Planning an event for over 120 vendors and 1,200 attendees is hard work, but the outcome is always worth the effort.

The disABILITIES Expo epitomizes the purpose of AWS Foundation. Those who attend find resources and outlets where they or those they care for can reach their full potential. A  day where all abilities are celebrated through art, performance and athletics is just the start. Attendees get face-to-face interaction with vendors to find answers to their questions.  And that was exactly the theme of the 10th annual disABILITIES Expo on May 11, 2019. FIND Answers. We joined forces with our new online system navigation tool,, for the theme of what the Expo seeks to do.

Celebrating the 10 year milestone was an exciting undertaking for my first year taking charge of the event. I owe much of the success to my coworkers and committee members who are as passionate about the event as I am. We added more fun this year with a major door prize, a certificate for a trip for a whole family worth $2,000! With the help of FINDER, we also organized a scavenger hunt to get people thinking about “finding answers.” For the first time, the cover of our program guide was determined by a contest in which the winner was an artist with a disability. Her artwork was also turned into a commemorative poster free for all attendees to take home.

Months of work is over in one day. One day filled with joy, excitement, tears, relief, fun, friendship, and answers. Perfection is impossible. I learn that lesson the hard way each time I put myself into a project, but I strive for that perfection because those impacted at the disABILITIES Expo deserve our best work. Though, once the day starts, the days and weeks after, I forget about what went wrong. People told me of their daughter finding help getting a job, a parent learning about a resource that they’ve desperately needed, and the enjoyment that everyone found in the performances and the art. The disABILITIES Expo is for everyone. Join us next year on May 9th, 2020.

FINDER, The Right Tool for the Job by Vicki Lee Johnson

My husband and I enjoy do-it-yourself projects. For us, these are the kind of simple decorating, building and remodeling projects done around our home that bring us joy and increase the value of our home. Some projects go smoothly. Others, not so much.  One of the most important things we’ve learned over the years is that when we have the right tools, we are more successful in our endeavor with less effort and stress involved. The right tools make a positive difference. So what does using the right tool for the job look like when trying to find answers to disability-related questions and locate services close to where you live? is a new online tool specifically designed to connect people with disability-related programs, services and supports in their local community located anywhere in Indiana. It’s FREE and can create a customized list of resources based on a person’s unique situation and needs. FINDER is easy to use. It can support first-time users with a step-by-step guide, or for those more experienced users, it has advanced search features. Regardless of how information is located, search results are immediately available, can be saved for future use and shared.

Like any tool, the more we use it and the better it’s maintained the more valuable it becomes over time. It develops into the “go to” tool that we rely on most to complete many different jobs. In addition to its existing content, is designed to give each of us the opportunity to submit new information and report changes needed to an existing listing that may benefit others. All of the information and resources shared are reviewed, verified and approved before they are published to ensure their accuracy and value. Promoting collaboration and sharing user feedback supports inclusion of opportunities and resources of all sizes and types from every community state-wide.

As my husband and I find more projects, it becomes more important than ever to build our knowledge and skills to complete each job. Having the right tool for the job gives us an advantage. When faced with challenges to help people of all abilities find the answers they need, having FINDER in our toolbox gives us the advantage we need to get the job done!

For more information visit FINDER or email