STOW: When Kelly Toppin’s daughter suffered an illness that put her in a wheelchair for an entire school year, he learned about a world most people never have to deal with.
Things his family had taken for granted — like getting to school and getting around in school — suddenly were obstacles to overcome.
So when Stow Mayor Sara Drew asked Toppin to join a Disabilities Commission she was forming, he eagerly accepted.
“There was no question I was interested,” Toppin said.
The city-sanctioned commission, which started meeting 14 months ago, appears to be the only one of its kind in Summit County and among only a handful in Ohio.
It’s mission: “To bring awareness to the community and find ways we might better assist those with disabilities in living a normal life, and to be able to access the things and events and buildings that all the other citizens of the city could access,” Toppin said.
Drew’s interest in helping people with special needs comes from a personal place: Her daughter has a disability. When she became mayor in January 2012, forming the commission was one of her first acts.
“It’s just something that was really important, and I know they can make a difference,” she said.
The Summit County Developmental Disabilities Board thinks Drew is making a difference, too.
The board nominated her for a statewide Ohio Public Image award. Nominations must be made by providers and county boards of development disabilities, and two of the awards are given to elected officials each year.
On Monday, the board learned Drew was chosen for an Excellence Award. Commissions like the one she formed “go above and beyond what are required of cities,” said the county board communications director Billie Jo David.
Drew deserved recognition for being “proactive,” David said. “Accessibility in communities is aligned with our mission, and the work on [her commission] is allowing greater access for everyone within her city.”
Toppin said the commission spent its first year “getting our feet wet.”
“We asked city councilmen in their wards to go out and see if there were any concerns, and we attended council meetings” to collect information, he said. “Last year was about getting ideas.”
The group’s first hands-on activity was helping senior citizen voters understand their options for casting ballots and registering new voters at the local senior center.
The commission also weighed in when City Council was debating a proposal to upgrade crosswalk signs near the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library so that visually impaired pedestrians could hear a warning beep.
Council decided to turn down the request that the city seek a matching grant, but Toppin said the process still served as a learning opportunity for commission members, most of whom are new to the political arena.
This year, the Disabilities Commission hopes to put together a Speakers’ Bureau, perhaps offering programs at the library.
They have also been talking to Marty Saternow, director of special services for Stow-Munroe Falls schools, about potential partnerships.
“We were surprised that 11 percent of students in [the district] have some type of disability,” Toppin said.
Saternow said the first collaborations might be a print guide on resources in the community and helping students with special needs find jobs.
The commission “can help us look for additional resources for our students and things that our teachers can access,” Saternow said. “Any vehicle we can have that increases awareness and acceptance is the right direction for any community.”
Toppin said most ideas are still in the talking stages. The commission is trying to learn how to make an impact without benefit of a budget.
“We’ve had other ideas, but some of them are beyond our scope,” Toppin said, like a suggestion the commission pave a local walking path for wheelchairs.
“We’re still hoping we might get a budget this year, but for now we’re just getting our name out there and making people aware of us.”
Other winners of Ohio Public Image awards announced Monday included: Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal, Excellence Award for photograph (publication with circulation over 100,000); Lynn Lee, The Reporter newspaper in Akron, Merit Award for print journalism (weekly or monthly publication); and Akron Life magazine, Merit Award for photograph (weekly publication).
The Office of Communications for the Summit DD board won awards for overall awareness efforts, public relations, broadcast public service announcement, annual report, special publication and Internet usage other than website.