DeKALB – Two Northern Illinois University graduate students are to thank for what will soon be improved handicap-accessible parking and curb spaces downtown after they approached City Manager Bill Nicklas about accessibility concerns earlier this month.
Kelsey Williams, 28, of DeKalb and Gisela Guzman, 24, of Waukegan, both graduate students in NIU’s rehabilitation and counseling services program, met with city officials July 3 to call attention to what they said was a lack of accessibility along Lincoln Highway, specifically around south Second and Third streets, and on the sidewalk in front of Lord Stanley’s, where a hump in the walkway can make it difficult for people with physical disabilities.
Nicklas confirmed Friday that an additional handicap parking space will be added along Second Street, south of Lincoln Highway and north of the Embree parking lot near the Nehring building before the winter. Additionally, a ramp will be added to the 6-inch curb near that spot so sidewalk accessibility is improved.
Guzman has lived with what she calls an invisible disability her whole life: retinitis pigmentosa, which means her retinas are dying.
“I’m considered almost completely blind at this point in my life,” Guzman said Thursday sitting on a bench near where the Second Street parking space will be added.
Guzman said she wanted to advocate for change in downtown DeKalb because she has experienced what it’s like to live with a disability and not be respected or have ease of access like everyone else.
“If you live long enough, you will acquire a disability,” Guzman said. “If your environment is already accessible, that should not be an issue. But if your city’s already accessible, you can still navigate it with no issue. The disability is not the issue. What is the issue for people is the inaccessibility.”
Williams’ experience with disability comes from her mother, who was diagnosed with a degenerative neuromuscular disease that left her unable to work.
“We thought [the disease] was going to be the hardest adjustment,” Williams said. “But really the hardest thing was how people started to treat her when she started using a cane, walker and wheelchair. They stopped making eye contact with her and started talking to me instead.”
Nicklas said an additional parking space will be added to Third Street, south of Lincoln Highway and north of the railroad tracks, but money to pay for it will have to be allocated in fiscal 2020.