A Community Learning To Speak The Right Language

By Pat Case – patcase57@outlook.com
2023 America Walks AARP Alaska State Walking College Fellow

Homer is a small Alaskan town (under 10,000 pop.), nestled into some of the most beautiful settings The World has to offer. I have lived in Alaska for 66 years, the last 40 in Homer. It has only been the last four years that I have become an ADVOCATE for the Elderly, those who live with Disabilities, and Caregivers. This is the group I am part of, as I am 90% visually impaired, and have some age related mobility issues.  At first the  goal was to get a sidewalk on a street that ran by the senior center. When I arrived at City Council, they were debating an ordinance to require sidewalks on most new roads . I knew I was in the right place, and it passed after many weeks of debate.

As other accessibility issues were discussed,  I realized “ADA COMPLIANT” was not the gold standard that I thought it was, but to those in power it was  a box to check, to ensure they had met a generalized standard from an outdated guideline. The reality was that in many cases, this standard did not meet basic needs. The newest projects being presented as “compliant” actually have serious hazards for pedestrians  (skewed curb ramps, storm drains directly in walking path, trip hazards due to improper utility access heights) so we began to use the term “BEST PRACTICES” signifying a higher standard, we thought!

This did not resonate as clearly as we had hoped, but the wind of the voices of advocacy grew, and became more unified, igniting an ember that lay just beneath the surface, and the calls for a more walkable community grew. It’s not that city government didn’t want this too, but were always constrained by budget, and had difficulty prioritizing comprehensively. To the Council’s credit they have consistently called for greater public involvement. Their ears opened, and they heard a community say “help us live better lives”. This is when the City reached out for help from The ILC (Independent Living Center) a locally based, statewide advocacy group that I am part of, to craft a plan to secure funding from a DOT grant. The result of this collaboration was beyond most expectations!

The task was to identify projects that would benefit the whole community, and still have a chance in a highly competitive selection process. We knew the odds of being selected were not great, partly due to the huge volume of submittals statewide. Presenting the plan properly, to set it apart was essential. The group totally embraced the idea “go big or go home”. A project was developed that linked together 6 separate capital projects that would encircle the whole downtown core, and connect many existing pathways. This amazing project would be known as “Homer’s All Abilities and Ages Pedestrian Pathway” or The HAAAPP Loop. Out of this came the term “All Abilities and Ages” which is starting to prevail over ADA Compliant box checking.

This plan was warmly received by lawmakers, and actually caused a bit of a buzz in The State Capital. They really liked the approach of meeting the needs of an entire community. Through a long selection process, as many applications fell to the wayside the HAAAPP LOOP moved forward. After numerous delays and funding uncertainty, the State awarded 4 million dollars to Homer to build this project, the only project approved in our region. Main funding will come in 2027, and yes this project will be built using the “Public Right Of Way Access Guidelines”, that was just introduced Sept. 2023. Walkability is so important to the health of a “community of the whole” that we must continue to ask the right question, not “is it good enough” but ask “how do we make it better” (for everyone).