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UAMS Project SEARCH® Student and Alum Use Their Skills to Raise Awareness for Accessibility

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William “Will” Stevens joined the University of Arkansas for the Medical Sciences (UAMS) Project SEARCH® program as an intern in the fall of 2016. Project SEARCH® Arkansas: ACCESS® Initiative in partnership with Arkansas Rehabilitation Services (ARS) is a nine-month internship program for young adults with developmental disabilities. Interns in the program complete three rotations at a partnering business with the goal of gaining necessary skills to obtain competitive employment. Will was excited to start learning these skills, and he was off to a great start. But as Will, who travels via a motorized wheelchair, began to learn his way around the UAMS facility, he found that there was one aspect of his daily internship that was not as accessible as he needed: the restrooms.

“I kept getting frustrated with how far I had to travel to find an accessible, motorized wheelchair-friendly restroom. I found I was having to go all the way across the building and up or down to different floors,” Will explained. “Sometimes elevators are slow, and often they break down. That can be very inconvenient and troublesome in an emergency situation.”

When Will first began having trouble, he was serving his first internship rotation in the Quality Management Department. He asked his supervisor Sandy Bennett if he could write a Personal Interest Project (PIP) about the restroom situation. Sandy encouraged him to do so, and she assigned Jermaine Moore to help. Jermaine, a former intern of UAMS Project SEARCH and now an Administrative Specialist for the Quality Management Department at UAMS, gladly accepted the offer. Jermaine, who also uses a wheelchair as transportation, faced challenges with restroom accessibility when at work as well, and the pair saw an opportunity to raise awareness.

Will and Jermaine quickly went to work on their project. They evaluated 315 public restrooms across the 48-building UAMS main campus. They looked to see if the restrooms were gender neutral, included a baby changing station, ADA wheelchair accessible, ADA motorized wheelchair accessible, and/or caregiver accessible. The results were surprising. Of the 315 restrooms evaluated, only 9% were gender neutral. This poses an issue for anyone requiring a caregiver of the opposite sex to assist with those basic needs. Also, only 16% of the restrooms allowed for the ease of caregiver assistance from a space and maneuverability standpoint.

Only 10% of restrooms had a baby-changing station, which not only raised awareness for those with children but also for those who need a dry, secure place to store specialized equipment while attending to restroom needs. “I need somewhere to put my communication device out of the way,” shared Jermaine who is non-verbal and communicates with an ECHO device attached to his wheelchair. “I cannot take the chance that it will get wet or fall onto the floor. It is very expensive to replace or repair.”

While a large majority of restrooms proved to be within the standards of the American Disabilities Act, those standards are somewhat outdated. “Most restrooms at UAMS meet the ADA standards, but those standards are no longer meeting the needs of our students, patients, and employees,” said Mickey Thomas, Facilities Space Planner for UAMS. “Those needs are ever-changing. There have been so many developments over the last couple of decades to help individuals with disabilities. Our facilities have to allow for those new needs such as new equipment, caregivers, etc.”

Internally at UAMS, the project has gotten a lot of attention. Results have been presented to several groups within the hospital, and a plan is being put into place to make the facilities more accommodating for the needs of all groups. “Our immediate concern is to fix/create a restroom for the basement floor of the Central Building to give Project SEARCH interns what they need. UAMS is honored to support this program, and we want to make sure their needs are being met,” reiterated Mickey. “We are also working with our Marketing and Communications Department to develop a map of available restrooms across our campus giving individuals a better idea of the location of facilities that will best serve their needs. In the meantime, I am working with various departments to search for funding to get these restrooms fixed. It’s a priority.”

The project has gotten attention beyond just UAMS. Will and Jermaine’s work to raise awareness to the need of accessible public restrooms has caught the ear of Project SEARCH International as well. The pair, along with their Project SEARCH team, has been asked to present their work at the Project SEARCH International conference in Pennsylvania this July.

 Will and Jermaine are overwhelmed with the positive support their project has received internally at UAMS, as well as beyond. “I am happy that the hospital has been so accommodating to help us however they can, said Will. “I still can’t wrap my head around Pennsylvania, but I’m getting used to it.” “I’m honored that God chose us to do this project that may help thousands of people,” Jermaine told us.

Will and Jermaine’s work has brought awareness to others who might not know of the needs, and they have certainly changed Mickey’s perspective. “Without them, we would not have had the resources to do the research Will and Jermaine did. It is an asset to have Project SEARCH at UAMS. While we help them, they also help us, and this project is a prime example of how they better our community. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Learn more about Project SEARCH Arkansas: ACCESS Initiative in partnership with ARS at www.projectsearcharkansas.org.

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