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  • Writer's pictureTommy Zurhellen

A Real Day of Independence

Monday, July 3rd

Dear Friends:

A very safe and happy July 4th weekend to all as we celebrate our nation’s independence! This past Thursday, I was honored to help celebrate a different kind of independence, although no less important, at the second annual TRI Inclusion Festival on the FDR Estate in Hyde Park. It was a wonderful celebration of Disability Pride and Culture organized by Taconic Resources for Independence, and I learned so much about the stark challenges facing the disability community in Dutchess County and beyond. According to TRI Executive Director Lisa Tarricone, “The mission of the TRI Inclusion Festival is to raise public awareness about the culture of disability, promote community inclusion for individuals with disabilities in Dutchess County, and challenge stigma and discrimination.”

My friend Joel Griffith, who has served as Mayor of Tivoli since 2015, was the featured speaker at the festival, and he told us the story of how his small town is constantly trying to live up to the charge of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in making sure public spaces have equal access for all, with small but vital improvements like adding an accessible bus shelter and making their adjacent town park more accessible, as well. “We’re a tiny town that loves its architecture,” he said. “But if there’s a way we can make Tivoli easier to access for all, we’re going to do it. It’s not only the law, it’s the right thing to do.”

Thanks for leading with kindness, Mayor Joel! I wish all our municipal leaders in Dutchess County worked proactively like you when it comes to ADA compliance. But sadly, that’s not the case.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted into law. That was 33 years ago, and yet, we still see local governments and businesses dragging their feet, or turning a blind eye altogether, in making reasonable upgrades to allow equal access for all. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability; a couple of months ago, I attended a Fair Housing Forum organized by the New York State Division of Human Rights. The whole event was an eye-opener for me, as I listened to the stories of people who were fighting against unfair housing practices. But the most shocking detail for me was that, by far, disability was the most common claim when it came to human rights violations in housing.

ADA compliance is so much more than merely installing a ramp or adding a grab bar to a restroom. It’s really about making everyone feel welcome. It’s about giving everyone an equal sense of independence and freedom. Think the disability community is small? Think again. The CDC reports 1 in 4 Americans live with a disability that impacts major life activities. That’s one-quarter of all clients and customers in your town who might be denied access simply because municipal leaders and business owners don’t want to follow the law. That’s unacceptable.

After Mayor Joel spoke, a young activist named Gemma in the back of the room asked a question that, frankly, I am still thinking about today. I could hear the frustration in her voice when she asked, “Who do I go to? Who do I call? Who can I contact when I need help against a landlord or a business owner?” The folks up front in the panel discussion responded with some general resources and websites, but it was obvious there was no clear answer to Gemma’s question.

So, who can you call when you’re being discriminated against because of a disability?

Well, Gemma, you can call me. As your next Dutchess County Executive, you have my word that your new county government will be proactive in making sure everyone has equal access to opportunities like housing. Like Mayor Joel said, it’s not only the law, it’s the right thing to do. We will always support our local heroes like Mayor Joel to do more in their communities. At the same time, I can promise we will work to firmly encourage others to follow Joel’s example until every municipality can offer true equity to all its residents and visitors.

Our county government can do so much more to help people like Gemma. It’s really about ensuring independence for all. And I can’t think of anything more American than that.

I want to commend Tivoli Mayor Joel Griffith for stepping up to make sure his community is doing what it can to ensure equal access for all. And I also want to congratulate Lisa Tarricone and her entire team at Taconic Resources for Independence for creating a truly wonderful community event, and for all the work they do in raising awareness about disability culture and challenging discrimination in Dutchess County and beyond. Lisa, your dedication is amazing!

July is Disability Pride Month! If you feel as strongly as I do about equal rights for all, I hope you will join our mission to bring our message of hope and inclusion to every corner of Dutchess County. We can’t afford business as usual, any longer. Please consider a donation to our campaign using the secure Act Blue link below. There are so many other ways to get involved, too, including donating your time and talents at any of our upcoming Team Tommy events listed on our monthly tour calendar, which is available on social media.

Thanks to Mayor Joel and Lisa Tarricone for being true advocates for positive change, independence, and freedom. And thank you, for listening! See you next time!

Respectfully, Tommy


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