Sunday, February 20, 2011

School Accessibility, Revisited

Last month, Burlington took a big step toward providing accessible schools to the community. Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece for Seven Days VT about the hurdles that face people with mobility issues when they try to enter Edmunds Middle School, one of Burlington's two middle schools and also a voting site for many people in the city. The building, built over a century ago, had formidable steps at its entrances and no elevator to allow disabled people to move between its floors.

But after dedicated work by members of the community, including Michael Wood-Lewis of the Front Porch Forum (seen in the photo, getting ready for the elevator's inaugural ride), the school board created plans and found funding for an elevator. It was wonderful to return to the middle school last month for the unveiling of the elevator, which was attended by school board members, educators, and families who supported the work, and write an update for Seven Days' staff blog, Blurt, about the event. While many people supported the work, there are others who are skeptical, as evidenced by some of the comments written in response to the blog posting. The elevator's cost was $1.5 million -- with most of the expense due to the electrical and construction work that needed to be done to update the building so that the elevator would actually run --and some of the commenters were upset at what they viewed as too high a price.

No doubt that $1.5 million is a lot of money. But given that it was debatable whether the school was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and that it certainly wasn't meeting the needs of the community, the work was long overdue. The bigger question facing Burlington, and many communities, seems to be how to fund schools so that children receive an excellent education at a time when coffers are drawing low and taxpayers are increasingly questioning spending.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Did the Stormtrooper read the label?

I wrote a story last week for Daily Finance, a finance and business site owned by AOL, about pink-ribbon marketing. It's something that anyone who steps into a store during October is aware of: the masses of pink-packaged items (from toilet paper to chocolates) that appear this month in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Most consumers take it for granted that by buying one of these pink-wrapped products, part of the purchase will go to support a breast-cancer charity or foundation.

In researching the story, I interviewed the head of Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group in San Francisco, who stated that if a product says "supports breast cancer" without details of how it actually does so, chances are the money does not go to any charity. (You can read her comment in my story.) Since I wanted to check out the validity of her statement, I stopped at a local Kmart and looked at their pink products, writing down exactly what each product said -- or didn't say -- about how the purchase would benefit a breast-cancer charity.

And what I learned is that what BCA says is absolutely true. One product in particular, made by a consumer-product giant (again, read the details in the story), depicted the pink ribbon and some words about how early detection saves lives, but there was no information on how the purchase would help a charity. And after contacting the company, I learned that the purchase would only donate 2 cents to a breast-cancer foundation if the buyer used a coupon issued by the manufacturer at the end of September. Otherwise, the pink packaging was simply there to remind consumers about the cause.

Hopefully the word is getting out to more readers: my story was picked up by Jezebel and the Atlantic magazine's Website later in the week.

Bottom line: donate directly to charities, or, at the very least, read the pink labels very carefully. Otherwise, your money might be going to a corporate bottom line without helping any worthy cause.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Jay Leno, ad rates and Daily Finance

Jay Leno 1
Originally uploaded by sgtgary
Jay Leno, who starts his new show on Monday, Sept. 14, isn't getting the same ad rates as competing dramas on other networks, according to the Wall Street Journal. It's also the subject of my blog post today on Daily Finance, an AOL financial Website where I started writing this week.

It's not surprising that Leno can't get rates as high as dramas. The expectations from media and ad executives are that the show won't pull audiences as large as some competing dramas, such as "CSI: Miami," the WSJ notes. In a Variety story, an NBC executive says that they're encouraged by consumer "awareness" of the new show: 82% of consumers know about the program.

But still, that's almost 1/5 of consumers who know nothing about the show. That seems amazing to me given the media stories and advertising hoopla around Leno's move to prime time. These "unaware" people aren't as rare as one might think: a friend mentioned to me this morning that she had no idea Leno was moving to 10 pm. So despite NBC's efforts, the show might just not take prime time by storm.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Happiness Is a (Fill in the Blank)

Woke up this morning to pick up our hometown daily, the Burlington Free Press, and find a terrific front-page article about my husband's research by Tim Johnson.

As Johnson writes, "these are heady times for numbers crunchers" -- the amount of text and data available now allows researchers like my husband and Chris Danforth, his colleague at University of Vermont, the ability to mine for trends, influence and even the spread of ideas. Peter and Chris examined the happiness levels in blogs, song lyrics, and State of the Union addresses. (Who was the most happy president? JFK beat out Reagan, believe it or not.)

A lot of the press coverage of their paper, published in the Journal of Happiness (love that name), has focused on their findings that sentiment in blogs fell to their lowest level on the days following Michael Jackson's death. Meanwhile, Jackson's song lyrics rate as some of the happiest tunes out there.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

If you build a village, will they come?

Originally uploaded by beancounter
In Seven Days last month, I profiled a South Burlington development called South Village that adheres to the New Urbanism approach: making pedestrian-friendly streets, with garages pushed behind the houses, that lead to places you want to visit. A farm stand or a community garden, for example. Some of the better known examples of New Urbanism include Serenbe in Georgia and Seaside in Florida (the setting for "The Truman Show.")

It's a great concept. Who needs another cookie-cutter development with roads that lead nowhere? Unfortunately, the developer started selling a year ago, just as the real estate market ... well, everyone knows that depressing story.

The thing that caught my interest about South Village was that the development has a farm, with an attendant CSA (community-sponsored agriculture). As I say in the article, the development taps into a lot of themes dear to Vermonters' hearts: keeping a working landscape, supporting farms, buying organic from local growers. And apparently the story did grab some readers. One called me asking for the developers' number, saying it was the type of community she had dreamed of, and the piece was one of the most-read stories on Seven Days' site the week it came out.

But as a friend pointed out to me, the development basically reinvents the whole concept of Burlington. For people who live in town, like me, we have the same type of layout: walkable streets, houses (or cottages) tucked close together, garages pushed back behind the house, a strong sense of neighborhood. Well, I can't walk to a farm from my house (the Intervale is too far), but I can walk or bike to the farmer's market on the weekend. Not to mention the cafes, shops, co-op, and theaters.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Accessibility Gaining Traction in Burlington?

Accessibility in Burlington's public schools may be gaining traction, as I reported in Seven Days last week in the newspaper's print run and in its staff blog, Blurt. More than 50 people attended a meeting of a Burlington school board infrastructure committee to give their support toward making the Edmunds school complex accessible to people with disabilities. This is a story that affects the whole community, not just the handful of students in wheelchairs. As one person said to me in an interview, accessibility is something everyone will have to deal with -- as we age, as we cope with friends and relatives with disabilities, or if we get injured.

What was interesting about the meeting was that the committee heard comments from two disability advocates who gave their opinions that the school district is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by shipping disabled students to other schools. The school district has maintained it's in compliance with the law because it offers equivalent educational programs at other town schools. I wonder about how the law applies with issues such as teacher hiring, to throw out another problem: a disabled teacher wouldn't be able to work at Edmunds because of its obstacles (stairs, no elevators.)

At a meeting last Monday, May 4, the school board finance committee received a feasibility report for installing an elevator at Edmunds. The cost: $1.5 million and change. This would be the first step in retooling the entire complex, which includes the elementary school and two gyms. A bit of humor in the meeting: the architect's plan labeled one of the bathrooms "ADA Complaint." The finance committee members got a chuckle out of that typo.

Next up: a phased report with steps for making the entire complex ADA-compliant. It should be done in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Edmunds' Accessibility, Once Again

Michael Wood-Lewis, about whom I wrote in a Seven Days article in March, is organizing support to make Burlington's Edmunds school complex accessible to children and residents with mobility issues. Edmunds, as I noted in the article, is much more than a school: it's a central voting site and holds First Night events, for example. Wood-Lewis likes to describe the building as the most prominent school in Vermont, by which he means it's both one of the most-used schools by members of the public and also one of the community's most identifiable buildings because of its location on Main Street in Vermont's biggest city.

Check out Wood-Lewis' site here.

And consider lending support to this effort. Also, why stop at Edmunds? Think about which other schools or public buildings in your community fall short of allowing access to everyone.

Here's a bit of Wood-Lewis' recent email about his campaign, in which he urges residents to attend an April 28 school board committee meeting at 7 pm at the Ira Allen Building:

Did you know that Burlington schools are segregated? Kids in wheelchairs are not allowed to go to Edmunds. Nor can parents or grandparents with mobility impairments get into the building to visit their children's classrooms. A teacher who now needs a cane? She's unlikely to keep a job there. The students who break legs snowboarding? They'll be out of school or stuck in the library for weeks. Community members who use wheelchairs? They know they are not welcome to partake in the daily use of the building for drama, sports, clubs, meetings, First Night, voting, etc.

We can change all this right now. We can make Edmunds, which is the most prominent public school building in the entire state, accessible to all of us.

A group of a dozen parents, students and supporting professionals are working on this big challenge and WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW. Our community must convince the school board that making Edmunds accessible is a top priority, and we also must convince the Governor and Vermont legislature to support this project with federal stimulus funds. Details:

We came to this work through our nine-year-old son, Ben, who uses a wheelchair and faces a big set-back to his education and support structure if he's not allowed to attend Edmunds Middle School with his friends in two years. As we've learned more about this situation, we're amazed by how many people in our community are effected by Edmunds' lack of accessibility.

Please check his site for more details.