Dr. jw Smith and Dr. Allyson Hughes share perspectives on Athens and accessibility in light of Athena Award nominations

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ATHENS,  Ohio (WOUB) — Nominations for the eighth recipient of the Athena Award are open for those wanting to honor a person working to make the community a better place for people living with disabilities.

Since 2015, the City of Athens and the Athens City Commission on Disabilities have used the award to recognize the efforts of those people in the greater Athens area.

Dr. Allyson Hughes is a member of the Athens City Commission on Disabilities and a professor at the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Ohio University. Her research focuses on improving accessibility to medical care for those with disabilities.

She said the Athena Award is important because it not only celebrates the people who are contributing to the wellbeing of people with disabilities, the award also highlights what our community can do to make Athens more accessible.

“At the end of the day, people with disabilities and people with chronic conditions are not always having their needs met, and that is something that needs to change,” Hughes said. “We need to be identifying who the ‘helpers’ are – the people who are facilitating this change, especially locally, so we can make sure we can continue to foster that change.”

Hughes said that while there are many necessary accessibility changes that are costly, such as installing talking crosswalks, it is often seemingly small changes made in the spirit of inclusivity that improve accessibility.

“Things like using high contrast colors and a clear font when it comes to signage can make it possible for people with low vision to perceive text, and something as low cost as installing a doorbell outside a restaurant can make it easier for someone to request a ramp to enter,” Hughes said. “Not all of the changes we’d like to see are so low cost, but a lot of times it really is the little pieces of change that really add up.”

Dr. jw Smith, a professor at the Ohio University School of Communication who received the Athena Award in 2019, said he’d like to see such changes in four key areas: transportation, employment, information access and general attitude toward people living with disabilities.

The first three areas all deal with improving access for people living with disabilities, whether it means developing methods of getting from point A to point B with agency, expanding job opportunities or making more literature and information accessible to people with disabilities.

“I’ll get personal, here, as a blind person,” Smith said. “I would love to be able to walk in the Alden Library, or walk in The Little Professor, or The College Bookstore and just browse — but I probably have access to maybe 15 percent of the literature and the information that the general society has. And that’s mind boggling.”

Smith said the fourth and perhaps most pervasive issue facing those living with disabilities is the general attitude of the wider public toward them.

“They don’t even know how to have a normal conversation with somebody who may be blind, or deaf, or mobility impaired,” Smith said. “And because of that, they will tend to shy away from that person, or maybe put that person in a corner. Even worse than that, they sometimes dehumanize us – they’ll talk about us as if we’re not there.”

He likes the phrase “nothing about us without us,” which emphasizes the importance of groups such as the Athens City Commission on Disabilities and the Athena Award in the context of the conversation about improving accessibility.

“We are the only minority or underrepresented group that anybody can join,” Smith said. “You could go fall down the steps — or God forbid, you start losing your eyesight or your hearing as so many are as they get older – and then you become labeled as ‘one of us.’ We are often left out of many discussions – that’s getting much better, and we’ve been making strides, but we still have many, many miles left to go.”

Hughes echoed Smith’s statement, emphasizing that improving accessibility is a goal that benefits everyone in the community, not just those living with disabilities.

“We have to keep in mind that disability really impacts not only the individual, but also the family and the community,” she said. “In the Commission, we have people who are parents of kiddos with disabilities. We have older adults with disabilities. We have people like myself, who are in their thirties that have been disabled since they were kids. So accessibility is really something we need to invest in as a community.”

The nomination form can be downloaded at this link and either emailed to or mailed physically to Athens City Hall, Attention: Mayor’s Office, 8 E. Washington Street, Athens, OH 45701.

Nominations for the eighth recipient of the award are being accepted through September 1.

The 2022 recipient of the Athena Award will be honored Wednesday, November 2 at Arts West at a special event hosted by Mayor Steve Patterson and the Commission. The event is free and open to the public, but RVSPs to are encouraged.