I believe in giving to the community and doing things that matter. I believe in helping people like me. If there’s something positive I can use my skills and education for, I will do it. But I’m also a realist. I wasn’t too keen on jumping in to build yet another nonprofit, because I understand how difficult it is to make it work. I had just left a position at a nonprofit that had been around for eleven years, and yet it struggled. A good idea is never enough. Sometimes you put in a lot of work and energy, stress and sweat and tears and even then it simply may not work. Every day you worry about getting the word out, hoping you’ll find people who share your vision and mission, you hope that you can convince just enough kind souls that you’ll be able to pay the bills to keep running. Yes, an office 9-5 job gives you more safety. And then, you don’t feel as guilty, as if it’s on you, and you only, if something happens. Because despite the good intentions, things often don’t go the way you plan.
But I know what it’s like. I have a disability too, I’ve been in a wheelchair all my life. I know how frustrated I get if I’m planning to go somewhere—a venue, a motel, a store—not knowing how much my condition will get in the way of enjoying my night. Will I be able to use the restroom? Will I even be able to get in? Is there a sidewalk or would I have to roll on glass? Is there a safe way for me to cross the street or should I just opt to have the bus take me to the other side? If I go in, will I be able to get to all areas myself, or do I need a friend to help me get my order in? Do the owners use handicapped bathrooms and elevators as convenient storage spaces? Do the business owners know or care about the Americans with Disabilities Act? But ADA aside, how practical is it for a person like me to try to get inside? Inclusion comes from people with disabilities being able to do things for themselves. From participating in what their surroundings and communities have to offer. If I know what to expect, I can plan around it and make informed decisions. The more I know about all the different ways I can be included, the less I’m afraid, and the more likely I am to try new things. My wheelchair is a problem, but that’s my problem to deal with—the outside world doesn’t have to make it bigger than it already is. That is how the Florida Disability Access and Awareness Foundation came to be. The mission: to give the power back to individuals with disabilities. Information is that power and education is the key. I figured, we all know how to live our lives and how to cope with what we have, so rather than lecturing people we should just give them tools they can choose to use.
With that in mind, I reached out to people who have, in one way or another, been involved with or affected by disabilities. All as concerned as I was, ready the share the burden, the stress of making it work. I figured this time it had to be different. The board that I assembled all had unique perspectives on disability, with all kinds of backgrounds ranging from business to architecture, combining their visions to build something together. We chose Gainesville, Florida as a starting point—not too big, not too small—to test some of our ideas, but our dreams and ambitions are broader. We wanted to see if we could build the right type of structure here and then expand it. Ideally, in time, with the aid of grants, gifts and programs, we’ll be able to hire people with disabilities, not in spite of their conditions, but because of their experience. We hope to create a model that we can also adopt elsewhere.
We live in an age of video games, social media and apps that have integrated themselves with and affect our everyday lives. I’m excited to learn what role they can play in disability inclusion and how we can use them to change perceptions and build self-confidence. A modern take on disability with modern tools for modern times.
It’s an exciting time for us, but we need help to keep going. Please consider helping us by spreading the word and donating if you can. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and your donations are tax-deductible.
—Ralph Strzalkowski, President of FDAAF