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Witthaus Heads Accessibility Coalition In Carbondale

060816 Jodi Witthaus C.jpg

By Alex Haglund

Jodi Witthaus is fighting for her independence and is seeking to get the city of Carbondaleto help provide accommodations for her and others with disabilities who live there, so that she can keep that independence.

Witthaus last appeared in The Nashville News when the SIU-C student with Hoyleton roots was working on her Masters Degree. Witthaus, who is blind, received a braille keyboard and display through the combined efforts of the Hoyleton, Okawville and Nashville Lions Clubs. Witthaus still has roots and family in Hoyleton.

Witthaus is seeking to have a voice in Carbondale by organizing a coalition, formally known as The Carbondale Coalition for Accessibility.

There was a coalition like this in Carbondale in the past, but, “we're probably a good ten years past when that was last active,” said Carbondale's (then Interim, now permanent) City Manager, Gary Williams, who has been talking to Witthaus about the coalition and its goals.

After receiving her masters in social work in May, Witthaus moved towards the next big thing- namely, finding a job. While she is still working towards that goal, her interest in leading an independent life despite her blindness had her attending a forum on disabilities put on by a professor at the University about a year ago.

Actually, the forum was just focused on disability-accepted housing, but Witthaus said, “I didn't get that memo.”

The mayor of Carbondale was at the forum and Witthaus, diverging from the intended subject of the forum sat up and asked “what about this roundabout?”

The roundabout is an intersection planned for the four-way where Grand Avenue and South Lewis Lane come together- an intersection Jodi and Nika, her service dog, regularly cross. While roundabouts can be a boon for traffic flow, at best they would be problematic for someone like Jodi who would be navigating the crossing with the help of an animal trained for regular crosswalks, and at worst, they could be a deathtrap.

“Jodi asked to see the blueprints for the roundabout and to know what accommodations it would have for the disabled, but says she was met with an unfavorable response from the mayor who she said told her, “the roundabout is going to happen.”

That forum was just the introduction Witthaus had to city government though, and she has kept talking, largely with Williams, which has led to the reformation of a coalition in Carbondale.

The morning the Nashville News spoke with Witthaus, she met with Williams, Chris Wallace of Carbondale Developmental Services, who oversees accessibility issues on private property, and Sean Henry of Carbondale Public Works, who covers accessibility issues on public property.

“I think that we're completely supportive o reconvene or reform the group,” Wallace told Witthaus. “What do you want to do moving forward?”

Witthaus said that it was her plan at this point to act as the spokesperson for the coalition and then after holding meetings with them, to bring the issues that they had to the city.

“I don't want people to think that we're going to ask for ridiculous accommodations,” Witthaus said, “we want to work together to come up with ways to make this accessible for everyone.”

Henry suggested the idea of bimonthly meetings with Witthaus or the coalition, which Witthaus agreed to.

“We can just establish those moving out so that we can keep that view in mind in our projects,” Henry said, “and of course, you can relay that information to us any time as well, just as you are now.”

One of the biggest issues for Williams, Wallace and Henry, as well as for Witthaus and the coalition, is not merely having the will to change things for the better, which they share, but to have the information and perspective on what is required for accommodations for the various disabilities that exist in the community.

One issue that comes up is that so often, accessibility comes down to making a place or street accessible for a person in a wheelchair- that being the default version of disability in many people's minds, due in no small part, to a person in a wheelchair being the logo plastered on accessible bathrooms, parking spaces, everywhere really.

“There's such a hyper-focus on wheelchair disabilities or mobile disorders,” said Henry, “but it's about access for anybody.”

So Witthaus, a blind person navigating with a service dog, brings a new perspective to things that all three city employees hadn't necessarily heard before. Hearing more of these perspectives, and then bringing the issues attached to them to the city will be Jodi's challenge.

Witthaus said that she already has a small group of people with disabilities who have expressed an interest in the group.

“It's not big,” Witthaus said, “people don't want to identify with having a disability.”

Witthaus did say that there was a new RSO (Registered Student Organization) for accessibility, and said that the coalition would be reaching out to them.

Williams also recommended that Witthaus seek out the Jackson County Health Department , saying that they had assembled a community health coalition that met monthly at the Carbondale Township building. They could certainly benefit from Witthaus' perspective and also perhaps point her in the direction of more disabled people with a perspective to share.

There's plenty to do, both for Witthaus and the city, but “we'll find time, we'll make sure to find time,” said Williams. “The most important thing is to get it on the schedule.”

Jodi also received some good news when Henry told her that the roundabout that had been planned was now pushed back to 2020.

“That's a load off my shoulders,” said Witthaus.

Between the coalition and seeking a job, Witthaus seems to have her hands full. She still needs to seek licensure to practice social work, and is discovering that it is a challenge with accessibility issues all its own.

Witthaus' target though, is to work with the Veteran's Administration in Marion.

“When I first started, I really wanted to do micro work- so individual counseling,” Witthaus said, “but now I enjoy the macro stuff too: government, policy and all that.”

If Witthaus imagines herself moving in that direction, this coalition is certainly a good way to get her feet wet.

Jodi Witthaus with Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams, Public Works Director Sean Henry, and Carbondale Developmental Services Director Chris Wallace, following a meeting held with them on the morning of Wednesday, June 1.