31 May 2010

Dynamic duo aids disabled

By Phil Fairbanks News Staff Reporter

Dan D'Andrea and Dave Whalen are a dangerous duo.

One, they have money, and, two, they have a passion, a righteousness if you will, that drives them.

Together, they're a recipe for success unless you're a municipality, restaurant or hotel that thumbs its nose at people with disabilities.

"There's nothing worse than traveling to some place and not being able to get inside," said D'Andrea, a former construction worker paralyzed from the chest down in a 2004 workplace accident.

With the first-ever grants awarded by D'Andrea's charitable trust, a $1 million fund formed last year, the men are out to correct a great wrong — widespread ignorance over the needs of the disabled community.

The result is two initiatives that could open doors for thousands of people with disabilities.

Our intent is to ensure that everyone is included in society," said Whalen, a disability awareness trainer and consultant. "That's not happening right now."

Their first initiative is to create a Web site — www.accessbuffalo.com — that reviews local restaurants and hotels with an eye toward rating their accessibility. The site will be up and running July 1.

The second initiative is "Town Hall Training," a new program aimed at training local government officials in what their legal responsibilities are under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"That's the law, but most people don't know the law, or say they don't," said D'Andrea, "And if people don't know what to do, how can we hold them responsible?"

Whalen said a lack of awareness "permeates local government," and the most obvious symptom of that is the dearth of local municipal committees dedicated to addressing the needs of the disabled community.

One of the few towns with an active and effective committee is Amherst. By no strange coincidence, D'Andrea and Whalen are members.

Just this year, at the committee's urging, Amherst Council Member Mark Manna asked building inspectors to review town-owned facilities with deficiencies identified by the committee. The problems ranged from poor signs to inadequate doorknobs to doorways too narrow for wheelchairs.

"Every elected official needs to look inside himself and ask if they're committed to spending taxpayers' money on these things," said Manna, the Amherst Town Board's liaison to the committee.

Whalen thinks Amherst eventually can become a model for the rest of Western New York as he and D'Andrea push for the creation of committees for the disabled in every city, town and village.

They also plan to target Western New York's restaurants and hotels as part of a new Web site offering recommendations on where people with disabilities can eat or stay.

The local restaurant industry is cooperating.

"Bottom line, it's the right thing to do," said Robert Free, president of the local chapter of the American Restaurant Association. "It also opens the door to an expanded and largely untapped market."

In short, it's good business to be open and accessible to the disabled.

As director of food service at Coca-Cola Field, Free knows the benefits. Pettibones, the heart of his operation there, is known as a restaurant with widespread access.

And thanks to accessbuffalo.com, even more people will soon know that.

When the Web site debuts in July, people will be able to select from reviews that look at everything from a restaurant's entrances to the accessibility of its restrooms.

The reviews will be done by volunteer college students from Canisius, Niagara, Hilbert and the University at Buffalo.

"We're not coming in and saying, "You're bad because you're not accessible,' " Whalen said. "What we're saying is, "This is what you need to do to become accessible.' "

The common theme in everything Whalen and D'Andrea do is access and inclusion. Spend a few minutes with them, and you'll hear it over and over again.

Poke a little deeper, and you'll find out why.

For D'Andrea, it's a passion rooted in a December 2004 accident at the old Holling Press building, the site of one of downtown's first housing rehabilitation projects.

D'Andrea was working there when a large piece of scaffolding fell and landed on his back. The young construction worker eager to start his own business found himself in a wheelchair instead.

"My goal," he said, "is to make as many places as possible — public and private — accessible to people like me."

For Whalen, it's not so much about him as his young son, who was born with cerebral palsy. "I've worked in the field for years," he said, "but what drives me now is my son. I want to ensure that he, like everyone else, is included in every aspect of our society."

A tall order, but then again, you should never sell righteousness short.


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