Improving accessibility for residents with disabilities something that is important in many New Jersey communities. After receiving $100,000 in grant money from the Inclusive Healthy Communities Grant Program, two New Jersey municipalities now have the funds to put their plans into action.
Hanover Township in Morris County and Evesham Township in Burlington County were each awarded a Capacity Building Grant as part of the state Department of Human Services’ program designed to encourage communities around the state to improve the lives of those with disabilities by laying the framework for longterm infrastructure changes.
“We’re really looking forward to actually making a difference,” said Shelby Snow, a project coordinator who played a major role in crafting Hanover Township’s grant application. “That’s what government is all about. We work for the people. All the people. And it’s nice to be able to look at a group that I think gets overlooked in a lot of ways.”
The communities were each awarded a grant after submitting an application late in 2020 outlining the need for funding and how the grant money would be used to improve accessibility.
“There were three things that we included in our proposal,” said Snow. “The first thing is to commission an outside consultant to come in and help us create a mobility plan for the township.”
Hanover, a community of fewer than 15,000 people, has two major highways that cross directly through the township. Route 287, Route 10 and Route 24 all pass through Hanover Township. Without little in the way of public transportation, this can cause headaches for those who can’t drive but need to access businesses located near these major highways.
“We reached out to several organizations that operate within Hanover and work with this population of people,” said Snow. “They told us about the challenges that they face, and one that kept coming up was transportation. If you have someone that can’t drive, but they want to start working towards their independence, get a job, they have to rely on a family member or friend or public transport.
“Because of the way Hanover is, there’s not a lot of options for public transport, so it’s a burden on them and on their families.”
This led Snow to her next point outlined in the grant proposal: the expansion of Hanover’s Dial-A-Ride program. The service provides transportation for senior citizens and disabled residents to and from doctor’s appointments and grocery stores. It has been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, but there is hope it will resume in the summer.
“It’s kind of a limited program right now,” Snow said, adding it had limited hours even before the coronavirus pandemic. “Right now it only runs Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. There’s no weekend options or after-hours options, so we want to look at expanding that service.”
From doorways that aren’t wide enough to a wheelchair to outdated crosswalks, there are plenty of infrastructural steps to be taken. “After talking with the different groups, there are things that we all take for granted,” said Snow. “Things that I’d never even thought about that they struggle with every single day.
“The third part of our proposal was all about improving infrastructure. This is something we were already kind of doing in Hanover, but we’re pretty much going to use anything leftover after the mobility study and the Dial-A-Ride improvements on intersections and sidewalks and ramps to public buildings and just look for any other improvements we can make.”
Hanover Township has already installed ADA crosswalks with ridged ramps at the edge of sidewalks, and is looking into new crosswalks that chirp or speak to let someone with visual impairments know when it is safe to cross.
Hanover’s grant application was 54 pages long, written mostly by Snow with input from the mayor and other committee members.
“We have a tendency to do that in Hanover,” said Snow. “We just heads-down get it done in-house. We’ve talked about hiring one of these outside groups, but we’ve had success doing it in-house with grants through the county and other grants through the state.”
The application for Evesham Township was 181 pages long. Evesham, which has more than three times as many residents as Hanover, worked closely with Millennium Strategies to help articulate the need for funding.
Evesham in its application outlined the need for improvements and now, after receiving the funds, turned its focus onto the particular details.
The first phase of Evesham’s plan is to conduct data collection and survey data to analyze what exactly would be the most effective use of funds in improving inclusivity.
“When we came into office two years ago, we established a Disability and Veterans Advisory Board,” said Deputy Mayor Heather Cooper, who played a major role in putting together Evesham’s grant application. “Which consists of people who provide services to people who experience intellectual, developmental or physical disabilities, as well as individuals themselves who experience a disability.”
By collaborating with non-profit organizations and councils around town, Cooper is hoping to craft a plan that will make their town as inclusive as possible. Members from the Evesham Disability and Veteran Affairs Advisory Committee will be joined by representatives from the Evesham Economic Advisory Council, the Evesham Special Needs for Adults Program, the local Sports Unity Program for children of all abilities, The Collaborative NJ, The Council on Quality and Leadership and Resources for Independent Living, as well as other community leaders.
In addition to the implementation of wheelchair ramps and widened doorways, Cooper is also focusing on more leisurely activities for those experiencing disabilities. “In a park setting, is the sidewalk wide enough for someone to use a wheelchair?” said Cooper. “That’s a very common oversight. Is there braille if somebody is blind or has visual limitations? The lips on the sidewalk to even access a park setting?
“Those are very small things that the average person probably takes for granted and we don’t realize is an important piece in having an accessible community.”
The second phase of Evesham’s plan will consist of the planning of specific infrastructural changes that will lead to long-term accessibility, as well as holding public meetings to share updates with members of the community and receive feedback on a larger scale.
Evesham has data that shows that nearly one in every 10 residents in town has some type of disability. Evesham is looking to make sure that representation for a significant portion of its population is included in its future planning, Cooper said.
“Typically when we think of a town, we think of the makeup of its residents,” said Cooper. “We have the business folks, we have the people who are into sports, people that are into arts or recreation, schools, all these different factions of people. But people experiencing disabilities crosses into every single group.”
Whether it is making sure that closed captioning is included for every local channel or making crosswalks more ADA compliant for people with visual or hearing impairments, Cooper said the goal is to improve accessibility for everyone in town. “The more access you can give to people to participate in a community, the better the community is,” said Cooper. “If we started on the path, this is helping build a bridge on that path. It’s amazing.”
The final phase for Evesham will be the implementation of initiatives and projects.
“This really is the next logical step in efforts that the township has really been focusing on,” said Director of Public Information Zane Clark, who worked closely with Cooper in the submission of the grant proposal. “We have dedicated staff members on hand to handle these issues and really help our town serve as a resource center for folks in our community who experience disabilities.”
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Casey Roland may be reached at [email protected].