Respect a key component for dealing with handicapped people, say local trio

As members of the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Community Accessibility, Vickie and Brian Kirkpatrick have seen physical barriers begin falling. But they say what those with disabilities want most is respect.
As members of the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Community Accessibility, Vickie and Brian Kirkpatrick have seen physical barriers begin falling. But they say what those with disabilities want most is respect. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published March 24, 2016.

Brian Kirkpatrick wants a smooth sidewalk and a doorway that will admit his motorized wheelchair.

Vickie Kirkpatrick, his wife, wants you to look at her and speak up during a conversation.

Michael Paff wants to be a chef.

Three individuals, each with a unique disability that slows — but doesn’t stop — the journey through life. And many of the speed bumps they encounter can be smoothed out by one thing, Vickie Kirkpatrick says.

“Respect,” she says. “More people being aware of the fact that there are disabled people out there, and to respect them as a person.”

Vickie Kirkpatrick has a hearing impairment; Brian Kirkpatrick has breathing and mobility problems. As members of the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Community Accessibility, they keep their eyes open to spots in Huntington that present challenges to people with physical disabilities.

Paff has Down syndrome. An irrepressibly friendly Huntington North High School sophomore, he has solid goals for his future.

“Maybe someday I would like to work in the ‘Chopped’ kitchen,” he says, making reference to a cooking show on television. He says he’d be willing to start out at McDonald’s or Taco Bell.

“After I graduate, I want to get a girlfriend. I want to get married.”

While the girlfriend hasn’t yet materialized, Paff is taking a cooking class at HNHS where he says he’s helped whip up pasta, hamburger meals and cookies. He cooks at home — “random food,” he says — and is fond of steak houses, ethnic food and, like all teens, Starbucks.

His school day is a mix of regular classes — he’s working on a project for his Viking New Tech history class — and classes geared toward students with intellectual disabilities. When he needs help, he works with a peer tutor.

Paff says math is his least favorite class; he’s enthusiastic about his theater arts/drama class, an enthusiasm that carries over to the movies and live theater he enjoys during his off-school hours — as well as the community choir he sings in. The Joyful Songsters is made up of people of all ages, with and without disabilities.

“It’s the best choir of all,” he says.

He’s gotten pretty good at bowling; “I do not get gutters,” he says. “I go straight and curve my ball.”

But school, he says, “is the best.”

“I like to learn and I like to study,” Paff says. “I like to work hard.”

And, he says, he likes the people at Huntington North.

“There are different people. I think I like all of them,” he says, pausing for a moment to consider if they like him, too.

“Yeah, they do,” Paff says with confidence.

The Kirkpatricks are lobbying for that same acceptance in the adult world.

“One of the big things is respect,” Vickie Kirkpatrick says.

“Respect goes a long ways,” Brian Kirkpatrick says. “It does go a lot further than people realize.”

A lack of consideration for those with disabilities, they say, can cut into a business’ profits.

Sure, when her husband can’t get into a business because of a curb or an unnavigable entrance, Vickie Kirkpatrick can go inside the business and buy what he wants. But that deprives him of the opportunity to browse, and maybe purchase more than just what he came for.

“They need to realize how much money they’re losing because he can’t get out there to spend it,” she says.

“My money spends as good as yours,” Brian Kirkpatrick says. “It spends the same.”

Kirkpatrick has used a wheelchair since 2009 and moved back to his hometown of Huntington in 2012.

“I can still remember when there was no wheelchair accessibility downtown,” he says. He was pleasantly surprised when he moved back. “It was pretty good, but there was a few places …”

“There’s still a lot to go,” his wife says.

So far, the city has built curb ramps on 545 out of 1,600 street corners and recently completed the remodeling of four restrooms in the City Building to make them accessible. But making it possible for people with disabilities to navigate their community will require more curb ramps, changes to restrooms in the parks and replacement of broken sidewalks — “keeping them up to rollability,” she says.

“There’s spots I feel like I’m going over railroad tracks,” Brian Kirkpatrick says of his experience with sidewalks.

While sidewalks are the property owner’s responsibility, Vickie Kirkpatrick notes that the property owner can apply for a grant from the city to cover half the cost of sidewalk repairs.

Then there’s the parking spots set aside for people with disabilities. Don’t park there, the Kirkpatricks urge.

“They park there and get out and run the Boston marathon in, and you can’t walk 20 feet,” Vickie Kirkpatrick says.

Not only is it inconsiderate, Brian Kirkpatrick says, illegally parking in one of those spaces can result in a ticket; too many tickets can affect a driver’s license.
Vicki Kirkpatrick says a disability such as her hearing impairment isn’t something people can see, but it’s still something that requires an adjustment.

“There’s places you ask someone to speak slowly,” she says. “Or if you have a tone of voice I can’t hear, I’ll ask you to speak up. I’ve seen some that will, and some that won’t.”

They ask law enforcement officers, faced with a person who appears to be intoxicated or is ignoring them, to consider instead that a disability could be at play. Brian Kirkpatrick has a breathing impairment that causes him to speak slowly, as well as a very halting gait when he is able to walk short distances. He was arrested for public intoxication one night in Kentucky, he says, before police realized it was medical issues, and not alcohol, causing his slow speech and tentative steps.

Because of her hearing impairment, Vickie Kirkpatrick says, she might appear to be ignoring a request from an officer who is not facing her. The officer can stay at a safe range away from the person, she says, step to where he can be seen and speak slowly so that the person can understand.
The accessibility council includes police representation, the Kirkpatricks note, and those suggestions are taken back to the police force. The council also looks at problems that the Kirkpatricks and others with disabilities see around town and attempt to come up with remedies.

“One of the key things about a disabled person is that a disabled person can fall into severe depression easily,” Vickie Kirkpatrick says. “It’s always, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.’ And before long …

“Start giving them back some of the ‘I cans.’ It will bring them back out of that depression.”