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Life on wheels isn't an an easy ride

NORTH LIBERTY– For North Liberty resident Joe Shepardson, a trip to the post office isn’t just a five-minute car ride. Going to the grocery store involves taking a circuitous route and braving the elements. Visiting City Hall requires accompaniment.
Shepardson was born with Cerebral Palsy, is legally blind and moves around in an electric wheelchair.
He is also educated, gainfully employed and eager to become involved in the North Liberty community.
It’s his abilities Shepardson wants people to see, not his disabilities. That’s one reason he briefly considered a run in the upcoming city council election this November. Shepardson reconsidered the election bid when he drove his wheelchair to City Hall to inquire about the process this August, and realized he was unable to get into the municipal buildings, including City Hall, the North Liberty Police Department and the community library.
Though those facilities meet accessibility standards, the lack of automatic doors makes them inaccessible to Joe, unless there is someone there to open the doors for him.
“City Hall has this beautiful ramp, but once you put a wheelchair in front of the door, there’s no space at the top of the stairs for a chair to turn around,” he said. “I’d go ass-over-tea kettle down the steps.”
It’s not so much a bone of contention as a blow to his independent nature.
“If I want to pay my water bill or access the police department, I have to do it from outside,” said Shepardson. “Nobody gave it a second thought that somebody in a wheelchair might want to come into council chambers for a council meeting.”
Joe and his wife Sally moved to North Liberty on April 1, 2009, from Lacrosse, Wis. Married in 1996, the couple came to Iowa because Sally’s family is from the Ft. Madison area. They intended to settle in Iowa City, but when Joe’s wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the door of the apartment they expected to rent, North Liberty was where they quickly found the only available– and affordable– apartment that would accommodate Joe’s apparatus.
“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” said Joe. “We were excited to start a new life here.”
A new life for the Shepardsons includes a safe home, a livable community and regular employment.
Joe has an associate degree in computer science and was once employed by Bell Labs in Wheaton, Ill. Sally– who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, Wis.– initially wanted to be a teacher. She attended Iowa Wesleyan College, but in her final year in the education program, she said, the college wouldn’t place her in a classroom to complete her student teaching component. Sally is also legally blind, with Cerebral Palsy.
Though both have been actively seeking work since they were married, finding jobs has been difficult for the Shepardsons, since neither is allowed to drive because of their visual impairments. They were forced to obtain disability benefits to get by. However, they recently became involved in the Ticket to Work program, a federal program that provides persons receiving benefits more choices for employment.
“We both believe in making ourselves as productive as possible, disability or not,” said Joe. “It’s the way my mother raised me. She told me ‘the world is your oyster, go out and get it.’”
But it isn’t as easy to take the world by storm when you rely on a wheelchair, or others, for your mobility.
“I have to coordinate my appointments around the bus schedule,” Joe said. “That might mean waiting for six hours, until the bus comes by again,” if it’s only an a.m./p.m. route.
Joe doesn’t hop in the car and drive to work like many people; he can’t even catch a cab, but must wait for the Johnson County SEATS bus that can accommodate his chair. Even then, SEATS doesn’t run a weekend route to North Liberty.
“Most people who work during the week– like we do– get to do their leisure activities on weekends. Sally and I can’t go anywhere on weekends, because there’s no transportation available,” he explained.
Most restaurants lack automatic doors, which means Joe can’t get inside unless someone is there to open a door for him. Even running daily errands– to the grocery store, the post office or the library– takes on a whole new dimension in winter, wheeling around in subzero temperatures, with icy wind blowing sleet on your glasses and snowdrifts over the only path to your destination.
Despite the challenges, Joe said he also believes in being an active catalyst for change, rather than sitting back and complaining. As Joe and Sally made themselves at home in North Liberty, they became aware of unsettling activities in their neighborhood: apparent drug deals, frequent police visits and the news that some of their neighbors were wanted in conjunction with local bank robberies and theft rings. Groups of young kids hung out– uninvited– on the Shepardsons’ outdoor patio, leaving garbage and rattling the door trying to get in. One weekend in May, at 5 a.m., three people entered their apartment in an apparent break-in attempt.
“They met me and my German shepherd, and we made them an offer they couldn’t refuse,” Joe said. The alleged break-in attempt was thwarted, but it was enough to prompt the couple to purchase a single-family home. It also moved Joe to think of ways to improve not only his neighborhood, but also the community.
“I know the police are doing everything they can, and I have no complaints about that,” he said, “but if I’m living here, and buying a house and paying taxes, I want to be part of the solution and make it better, because it affects me.”
That was another of his motivations, initially, for running for council.
“I want North Liberty to be a safe place, where people can walk the streets at night and play baseball in the parks and not have fear,” he said. “If I see these things and don’t do anything to try to change them, I’m not serving myself. If I don’t do anything, then that’s just foolishness.”
Joe has since decided to learn more about the city he has only recently come to call home, and wait for another council election before he gets his name on the ballot. However, he has taken steps toward what he feels can make a better, more accessible community. He spoke with both Mayor Tom Salm and officials from Senator Tom Harkin’s office to address the accessibility of the city’s public buildings.
Tamara Milton, TITLE HERE, visited North Liberty on August 20 to

WHY?? assess the city’s compliance with building codes for people with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), adopted in 1990 and chiefly authored by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, offers civil protections for people with disabilities similar to those provided to people on the basis of race, religion, age or sex. It does not provide a code for public entities by which to design buildings.
Instead, according to Building Department Code Official Tom Palmer, cities widely use the code set forth in the 2006 International Building Code.
“Chapter 11 of that code, which addresses accessibility, was prepared by a large group that included the Department of Justice, as well as people with disabilities,” Palmer explained. “Since 2000, most cities use International Code, Chapter 11, as a guideline for accessibility requirements for new buildings.”
The public buildings within the City of North Liberty are in accessibility compliance with the requirements in the International Building Code.
However, said Assistant City Administrator Tracey Mulcahey, that does not mean there isn’t room for improvement. Though Shepardson did not directly contact the city administration, and the City has not heard from state officials as of this publication, Mulcahey said they are already taking action.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” she said. “When we learned that there was a concern, we contacted an ADA technical consultant and obtained all the specifications for requirements. We didn’t know exactly what the problem was at that time, so we weren’t sure of the specific issue.”
City staff checked and re-checked their building entrances and facilities, which were found to be regulation. Automated doors, while ideal, are not a codified requirement for accessibility on any building.
“Based on what we have pieced together about Mr. Shepardson’s concerns, both city hall and the police department will be fitted with a door bell system for additional assistance,” said Mulcahey. “But we are also continuing to assess the situation. If there are other accessibility issues that come up, we will work through them because we don’t want any impediments for folks to do business with the city.”
Ultimately, Joe Shepardson has the same goal.
“I want to make this a better community for everyone who wants to contribute to the community,” said Shepardson. “As much as we’ve progressed, we can’t afford to go backward.”