Ohio University’s basketball coach Saul Phillips woke up this morning just like any other day, only when he opened his eyes, he couldn’t see.
Phillips spent the day with a disability like seven other Athens residents as part of the annual “Disabilities Speak” program hosted by the Athens County Commission on Disabilities.
“I was really struck by how my job and day-to-day hinges directly on my sight,” Phillips, who wore opaque sunglasses that obstructed his vision, said. “When it’s gone, you notice in a hurry.”
The disabilities ranged from being tethered to a walker to limb paralysis.
“We are all temporarily abled,” said Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, who served as the former chair of the Athens County Commission on Disabilities. “One day we will all have a disability. That’s just the frailness of the human body.”
All eight of the volunteers gathered in the Athens Community Center on Thursday at 6 p.m. to share their experience with the community. The program began with a performance from the Athens County Community Singers, a mixed choir of about 36 singers of all abilities.
Following the performance, Barbara Conover, consultant for the American Disabilities Act and the mother of disabled children, delivered a keynote speech on universal design. Universal design is the concept of allowing accessibility for people of all abilities, such as ramps, door levers instead of knobs and wider hallways.
“Everyone ought to be able to use everything available to everyone,” she said.
Although the city has made great strides, including a lift to the mayoral office and an ADA accessible path in Sells Park, Patterson said the city has a long way to go.
Athens City Schools Superintendent Tom Gibbs, who had a paralyzed arm for the day, said the experience was eye-opening not only to physical disabilities, but all disabilities students might be facing.
“A physical example was good but … what we confront more everyday are things like mental, cognitive or social disabilities,” he said. “I used this opportunity to talk to our staff about how to address those disabilities as well.”
Patterson wrapped up the event by presenting the annual Athena award to Noriko Kantake, the president of Appalachian Family Center for Autism and Disability Resources and Education. Kantake has an autistic son and recognized the need for increased accessibility in Athens.
“To be here today … this really makes my heart soar,” Patterson said. “I’m hoping everyone walks away today with more sensitivities to those around them and more sensitivities to accessibility and inclusion.”