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July 28, 2014

Group celebrates helping disabled

accessJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Access to Independence of Cortland County Treasurer Cindy Schlenker cuts a cake commemorating 24 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act during a picnic celebration Saturday at Courthouse Park in Cortland.

By TYRONE L. HEPPARD
Staff Reporter
theppard@cortlandstandardnews.net

Around 120 Cortland residents and members of Access to Independence of Cortland County gathered Saturday afternoon in Courthouse Park in Cortland for food, fun and an announcement during its 16th annual picnic to celebrate the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, the ADA became the federal governments attempt to end decades of discrimination against those with limiting physical and mental impairments.
“We hold this event each year as a way to just recognize how far our society has come in the last 24 years,” Access to Independence CEO Chad Underwood said Saturday, “but also to recognize how much further we still have to go.”
Fran Pizzola, event coordinator and founder of the agency, said she can remember how hard she and others had to fight to make the County Office Building and other public places wheelchair-accessible but added emboldening those with disabilities to be independent was also what the picnic was about.
“We have come so far from the County Office to where we are now,” she said. “And we just want to encourage youth with disabilities to find their way. We come and encourage people to set goals so they can be included in the community and have choice ... and self-direction.”
In fact, while community members ate lunch amid the laughter and music which filled the park Saturday afternoon, Underwood made an announcement that would further this particular goal of the agency’s mission statement.
“Today we announced the creation of the Mary E. Ewing Scholarship Fund for Independent Living,” he said. “Each year, we’ll provide five scholarships, one to each school in our county. A graduating senior will receive this — a person who has a disability, and who really emulates the independent living philosophy.”
Ewing, who served as the agency’s executive director for nearly 12 years up until a couple of weeks ago, was in attendance and said her successor did a good job keeping the scholarship a secret.
“It caught me totally off guard,” she said. “It’s a real honor. It’ll help a young person that is coming into the community be able to go to school or do whatever to meet their dreams.”
Though she’s no longer running ATI, Ewing is continuing to work with the agency part-time and said one of the reasons the ADA Picnic is necessary is because she believes educating people often leads to the support needed to spread the agency’s message at the local level.
“The speakers we have ... talk about their own experiences,” she said, “and I think the people in the audience often pick up something from that that they didn’t think about before. It gives them kind of the push to maybe want to be an advocate themselves. That’s what we really, really need — more advocates.”
Underwood said he was pleased with the turn out, adding he was grateful for the work and support from ATI staff, sponsors and community members continuing to make life better for those with disabilities in Cortland County.
“All of them combined really allows the impact we have to be exponential,” he said, “and every year it gets stronger and stronger. And we hope that one year that we’ll go out of business because our mission’s fulfilled (and) there are no attitudinal or structural barriers for people with disabilities.”

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