New nonprofit seeks to build relationships at all levels of government for an accessible Idaho
Formed in 2018, the Idaho Access Project advocates for Idahoans with disabilities in the areas of fair housing, outdoor recreation and even at the ballot box
It all started because they couldn’t safely access their own neighborhoods.
Now, the volunteers who make up the Idaho Access Project are taking on projects large and small to ensure Idahoans of all abilities can access the Gem State’s ample parks and recreation opportunities, accessible housing, its strong economy – and even the ballot box.
Their mission, according to the nonprofit’s website, is simple: work to eliminate physical, attitudinal and policy barriers to ensure people with disabilities can live, work and play in Idaho neighborhoods and communities.
“We got together and talked about wanting to form a nonprofit that approached access and disability justice in a different way than what we had experienced before,” said Dianna Willis, president of the project. “We wanted an organization that really focused on those micro challenges that people with disabilities face every day just to get out and to recreate, or to go to work, or to enjoy life in Boise and in Idaho.”
They’re willing to take on projects like asking Treasure Valley recreation officials to move boulders meant to block vehicles from hiking trails just a bit farther apart so a person in a wheelchair can still get through.
They’re urging housing developers to incorporate visitability into their subdivisions so that residents with disabilities can visit their neighbors. That design principle promotes features in new homes that include at least one zero-threshold entrance (think no stairs), doors that are at least 32 inches wide, and a bathroom that a wheelchair can access on the first floor.
They’re also encouraging businesses to think about the economic benefits of outfitting their shops and restaurants with accessible ramps, bathrooms and doorways so all Idahoans can spend their money where and when they want.
“Oftentimes, a business owner or a government official will first interface with someone with a disability in a lawsuit, in a courtroom,” said Idaho Access Project Secretary Erik Kingston. “It’s usually somebody filing a lawsuit against them or filing a complaint. And in this case, what we’re saying is, let’s have a conversation and make this a comfortable way to ask questions and learn about a different approach to design, some different programs and some different ways to think about a built environment and gaining access to the outdoors.”
Their hope is to continue building relationships with people in all levels of government to ensure Idahoans with disabilities can transverse our state as anyone else would.
Idaho Access Project’s Boise neighborhood access review
Formed in 2018, one of the Idaho Access Project’s first success stories was completing a neighborhood access review project in the Barber Valley area of Boise. Volunteers set out across the neighborhood from April to October of 2019 to see just how accessible the area was to people with different disabilities.
Their research went beyond simply traveling through the area to see where barriers to access are baked into the design and engineering of public spaces. These volunteers also scoured planning documents filed with local government agencies and compared them with what they observed on the ground, surveyed residents and businesses in the area, held listening sessions for people with disabilities and created a 27-page report on their findings.
Willis, who is blind and uses a service dog to help her navigate the city, said one of the best things to come out of the Barber Valley Neighborhood Access Review was the creation of the city of Boise’s Cross Disability Task Force. While they’re hoping to formalize the task force with an official city ordinance, the group has been working alongside the task force for over a year.
It’s an example of relationship-building the Idaho Access Project hopes can be replicated elsewhere in the state.
Idaho’s outdoor recreation opportunities for people of all abilities
Dana Gover, an Idaho Access Project board member who uses a wheelchair due to a car crash in high school, said neighborhood reviews are an experience that can help officials understand that even if an area is compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act – sometimes even that can be a challenge – there can still be barriers people with disabilities face every day to enjoy Idaho’s outdoor spaces.
“They can actually come out and see what we were talking about, right?” Gover said. “Because we’ve been getting (questions about) why we would even want to be on the trails. … That was actually a question: Why would anybody with a disability want to be on these trails? Just because we have a disability, doesn’t mean we don’t want to be part of that, too.”
Volunteers with the project visited North Idaho in September to identify accessible trails, campsites and other recreation amenities and hope to connect with more agencies across the state to build a working list of best places for people with disabilities to visit in Idaho.
Coeur d’Alene sets the example for accessible parks, recreation access
Kingston said they’ve found a fellow accessibility advocate in Coeur d’Alene Parks and Recreation Director Bill Greenwood, who understands firsthand the difference accessible parks and trails can make if people with disabilities are considered and consulted on existing and new projects. Greenwood said he works hard to ensure all Idahoans have access to recreation amenities in his city because the issue hits close to home.
“It’s my life; it’s not just one project in particular, to me,” he said.
One in four Americans, or about 26%, have some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Greenwood grew up in a family that is no different, he said. He loved an uncle whose polio diagnosis at an early age never slowed him down. His cousin, who was born without a hand, could hunt and fish as well as any other Idahoan. His aunt had a mental disability due to an accident.
“I was around it, so I was aware of it,” Greenwood said. “The biggest problem for folks is they’re just not aware of it.”
Greenwood agreed with Idaho Access Project volunteers that one of the most important aspects of accessible amenities is thinking about people with disabilities from the outset of any project. Even if there aren’t obvious solutions to accessibility issues, Greenwood encourages city and county officials to get creative.
For example, Coeur d’Alene installed what may be the first-of-its-kind wheelchair-accessible ramp in the Spokane River at Atlas Park. The project allows users to roll themselves into the water, secure the chair, and drift away on a flotation device, according to reporting from the Coeur d’Alene Press. That project came about after a Coeur d’Alene resident, who is an avid swimmer and uses a wheelchair due to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, told Greenwood her story.
“She said she has to go out onto the beach, throw herself from her chair and crawl, like an animal, to the water’s edge,” Greenwood said. “And when she told me that, I knew, because I always work with her, that we would try to figure out how we can get her and others in the water.”
The city of Coeur d’Alene also created a wheelchair-accessible dock/kayak launch in the same park, a project inspired by Tom McTevia, a former police officer who used a wheelchair after an ATV accident, Greenwood said.
All officials interested in working with groups like the Idaho Access Project to improve their communities can do a handful of things to help all Idahoans access their surroundings, he said. They should get into the habit of thinking about accessibility issues for every project. He stressed that making changes in the design or engineering of a project doesn’t necessarily mean the project will cost more money. Officials should also get to know personally people in the community with disabilities, volunteers with local disability action centers or the Idaho Access Project, he said.
Challenges to voting access for people with disabilities in Idaho
Volunteers with the Idaho Access Project advocate for people with disabilities at the ballot box, too, Gover said.
Gover said she had grave concerns about House Bill 547 – introduced by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, during the 2022 legislative session – which would have made it illegal to turn in an absentee ballot for anyone other than an immediate family member.
Gover said the bill would have disenfranchised voters like her who have a disability and who don’t have family living nearby.
“One of the things last year that was really scary for me was the possibility of not being able to have somebody take my ballot to the box,” Gover said. “And if it wasn’t a family member, they might get a felony (under House Bill 547). That was just some of the stuff that was trying to get passed last year that would really impact me.”
Other legislation, including House Bill 549 – introduced by Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley – would have done away with same-day voter registration and made it harder on people with disabilities to register. Similarly, House Bill 485, – introduced by Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird – would have prohibited the use of drop boxes as an option for someone to return their absentee ballot.
While none of those bills became Idaho law this year, the volunteers with the Idaho Access Project said they plan to advocate against future legislation that would make it harder for people with disabilities to access their fundamental rights, Idaho Access Project Treasurer Jeremy Maxand said.
“This kind of narrative around voter security ends up either eliminating opportunities or creating new barriers for folks to be able to vote,” Maxand said.
Correction: The Coeur d’Alene wheelchair-accessible dock/kayak launch is located in Atlas Park.