Leo Kirwan, a disabled Evanston resident, said he hopes a grant-funded planning process will ultimately result in concrete initiatives to make moving about the city easier for disabled and older Evanstonians.
Kirwan, a 21-year resident of Over the Rainbow Association's Hill Arboretum Apartments, will represent the organization, a nonprofit that provides independent living opportunities for individuals with physical disabilities, during a planning process spearheaded by the city of Evanston.
Evanston officials, in partnership with local organizations like Over the Rainbow Association, Pace Bus and Northwestern University, among others, and in addition to community members, will use federal grant money to identify strategies to make utilizing the city's transportation resources less of a challenge for its older adult and disabled residents.
Evanston was one of eight out of a total of 50 municipalities selected to receive the $85,000 grant funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal organizations, according to a press release from the city. Katie Knapp, transportation and mobility coordinator for the city, said Evanston was the only Illinois municipality to receive the grant.
Kirwan, who said he is paralyzed from the chest down, uses a wheelchair to get around and Pace to travel further than his immediate neighborhood. He said he can't leave his apartment unless he's scheduled a trip 24 hours in advance.
"You're always late for doctor's appointments and even entertainment options. You have to pick a time to also return home. You might not always be done having fun, and unfortunately it means it might cut short a lot of opportunities that would otherwise exist," he said.
Kirwan said he'll have a lot of knowledge to bring to the table as the city embarks on the planning process.
Most of the residents who live at Over the Rainbow's Evanston facility rely on transit services, specifically Pace, to get anywhere beyond their immediate neighborhood, said Sharon Smaller, grant specialist for the nonprofit.
She said Over the Rainbow wrote a letter in support of Evanston's grant application and she hopes actionable initiatives ultimately emerge from the process. Reliable transportation options are essential to the association's disabled residents, she said, particularly in Illinois' frigid winter months. With the advent of ride-share services like Uber, the general public has come to expect on demand travel options, Smaller said, and she hopes the disabled and older adult populations can be afforded similar transportation opportunities.
"Anything that would improve things would be great," Smaller said.
Knapp said the planning process will begin next month and run through the end of next June. She said the work will take a look at what transportation resources currently exist in Evanston and how they can be integrated more effectively to not only move disabled and older residents between major transportation hubs but from their doorstep to their ultimate destination. She said the planning process will also look at how technology can improve the lives of these demographics through various mechanisms, including peer to peer van sharing and on-demand ride services.
Knapp said the city is examining how it will solicit input from both disabled and older residents. She said it's likely they'll host smaller meetings at local organizations that cater to those demographics in addition to an online survey.
The catalyst for the grant application, Knapp said, is the city's underlying aim to become as livable for all residents as possible.
The process provides a way for the city to approach transportation from an age and disability friendly angle, Knapp said. She said it's important to make sure "we're not pushing people with disabilities or older adults to live in isolation."
The result of the year-long process will be a planning document including data on travel patterns throughout the city, Knapp said. She said the work they do over the course of the next year will likely make securing a grant to implement any recommended initiatives easier.
Kirwan said he hopes the process will help the disabled and older members of the community become more independent and less reliant on friends or family for help. He said he's been a longtime advocate for building housing for people with disabilities and "I think transportation falls right into that."
"I'm excited to see where this goes," Kirwan said.
Lee V. Gaines is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.