About a year ago, when Pamela Perlmutter took over as development director for Paraquad, she met with board members to learn more about the goals of her position. One such meeting took place in the Central West End with a board member who uses a powered wheelchair. However, when Perlmutter arrived at the designated restaurant, she discovered it was closed. She had to go to six different restaurants before finding one that could accommodate the wheelchair. When Perlmutter returned to the office, she told her staff, “If I am going to be in this line of work, I need to know the places in the community where I can go with someone who is disabled. Then I realized, if I need this, everyone needs this.”
From that experience, Paraquad’s new initiative, AccessibleSTL, was born. Officially launched recently at the recent first AccessibleSTL Awards, the program aims to educate the community about accessibility issues and encourage adaptation of services for the disabled, who number more than 225,000 in the St. Louis area. “We want 2013 to be the year of accessibility, and make St. Louis the most accessible community in the entire country,” Perlmutter notes.
This ambitious initiative is not unusual for Paraquad. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1970 by Max and Colleen Starkloff as one of the country’s first Centers for Independent Living for people with disabilities. Max had suffered a spinal cord injury when he was 21 and at the time, his only option was to live in a nursing home. “He fought not only for his right to get out and have a different kind of life, but then he continued to fight for others who couldn’t do it themselves,” Perlmutter explains.
Through the efforts of Paraquad, St. Louis was the first city in the country to have curb-cuts put in, as well as wheelchair lifts on public buses. Initially an advocacy agency, today the organization also provides a range of services for all disabilities, including in-home support, independent living services, continuing education and support groups. “We offer interpreting services for the deaf, help people who have suffered a disability to remodel their homes, send a van for those whose wheelchair or assistive technology breaks down. The scope of what we do is so extensive,” Perlmutter says.
Paraquad provides direct services to more than 4,500 people annually in St. Louis city and St. Louis, Franklin and Gasconade counties. Each year, its information and referral line fields almost 15,000 calls that range from questions about accessible restaurants to those seeking help for a loved who has just been disabled.
The new AccessibleSTL program will address not only the needs of the disabled, but the aging population, as well, Perlmutter says. “For the next 17 years, 10,000 people a day will turn 65 years old, and as they age, their need for accessibility increases. We want the community to be prepared to serve this aging population.” The collaborative effort will offer education, seminars and support services to companies and individuals who commit to improving their accessibility.
The winners of this year’s AccessibleSTL Awards already have made strides to welcome everyone, either through partnerships with Paraquad or on their own. The organization recognized Schnucks, the St. Louis Cardinals, Home Depot, Regions Bank, Metro Transit and Missouri Senator Joan Bray for their efforts.
At the event, Paraquad also announced a proposal for a new, fully accessible health and wellness center that it hopes to build behind its offices on Oakland Avenue in Dogtown. The center, which would be open to the public, would offer a place for people with disabilities to play sports and hold events.
After 42 years, Paraquad’s goals continue to grow with the needs of the community, and it hopes to expand the numbers served in the future. “We go to hospitals and sit by the bedsides of people who have become newly disabled, either through illness or an accident,” Perlmutter says. “We give them hope that their life is not over. Yes, things will change, but their lives still can be complete and happy. We let them know we’re here for them.”
On the cover: At the inaugural AccessibleSTL Awards, Paraquad launched its new initiative to create a more accessible community for those with disabilities. The awards recognized businesses and individuals that have made strides toward this goal. Pictured on the cover (from left): St. Louis Cardinals' Dan Farrell, Regions Bank's Sally Roth, Sen. Joan Bray, Metro St. Louis' Ray Friem and Schnuck Markets' Scott Schnuck. Not pictured: Home Depot's John Stephens. For more information, call 289-4200 or visit paraquad.org.