“It always feels like we have all the barriers ahead,” Executive Director Pete Roberts reflects from his office at the Springfield Center for Independent Living. “But we have put so many behind us. We’ve won a lot of battles. It’s incredible what’s been done.”
And so began my interview with the long-time disability rights advocate who has worked in the Springfield community for more than three decades. He wants the new generation of public and private Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinators to keep fighting the good fight. “We need to get them energized to stay on top of the ADA and its requirements.”
There’s not as much overt resistance to the Act’s requirements as there was in the 1990s, Roberts continued, but there’s more work to do. “We need to ask, ‘Why we did we need this, and why do we still have barriers?’”
As our conversation progressed, I realized this would be less a story about deliverables and more about a servant’s heart.
Pete’s is a voice from the early days of advocacy. He started as Chief Page in the State Senate and moved into a role at ARC, now SPARC. “I loved working there with a group of people I’d never known about before. We worked with them so intensely, but not in an ‘adult daycare’ for cognitive disabilities way; we had real teaching classrooms for adults doing adult things, not coloring in Thanksgiving turkeys like second grade.”
Now, many years, jobs, camping trips, tended gardens, and mindfulness practices later, Roberts is looking back at personal growth, professional success, and how to ensure SCIL is equipped to move forward.
Success and succession
Transportation in Springfield has been a Center cause since the early days. “In 1984, SCIL Director Beth Langen took on the Springfield Mass Transit District. Five consumers sued for lifts on buses as a civil right. As a result, the SMTD purchased 9 buses with lifts and created the Disabled Persons Advisory Committee. My first day at SCIL was the day the SMTD announced they would purchase those buses. I joined the advisory committee and I’m still on it, as chairperson. It creates direct communication without initially contentious conversation. Early on, we had to fight tooth and nail for everything we got in public para-transportation for door-to-door needs and fixed-line routes. Now, the SMTD is very accommodating to para-transportation needs, with the possible exception of the return trip home in a timely manner.”
Roberts isn’t the only long-timer at SCIL. David Munroe, Starla Norris, and Roberts have a combined 94 years of service! Norris recalls being told by one small-town government official years ago, “Don’t even bother trying to make this office accessible. We’re not going to tear up the hedge for a ramp.”
“We called Dick Durbin’s office and filed a Congressional inquiry as to why there was no access to that public building for people with disabilities,” Norris says. “They didn’t want to spend the money to install concrete ramps.” But they did.
“There are still businesses we can’t get into,” says Norris. There may not be public marches and sit-ins here these days, she says, but people can refuse to patronize those inaccessible businesses and have a strong, tangible influence.
“What I’m really proud of here,” says Roberts, “is the consumer-control piece. We do a lot of problem solving with individuals to get what they need to be in control of their lives. Our consumer-satisfaction surveys show they’re happy with how they’re treated. We usually have a steady stream of visitors for appointments and drop-ins for discount license plates and free bus passes, for example. We help people register through the Department on Aging. We cut through the red tape.”
For Roberts, work has always been about programs and services more than numbers and money. “I sincerely want to help someone. It’s always been a spiritual calling.”
The word he learned and has lived since his time in a California community is “Seva” – selfless service performed without any expectation of result or award, to benefit other human beings or society. And so, Roberts is intent on making sure SCIL is able to continue serving the Springfield community without interruption.
“I love my work. But, [with me] 74 years old, we’re preparing to update our long-range plan and make it a more strategic process that provides for my leaving the job. It’s in addition to our emergency succession plan. I’ve realized how complicated it can be, even just updating access to a federal website with usernames and passwords, for example. We need to have procedures in place and staff designated to do certain parts of what I do. This will empower our staff and our board of directors to run SCIL.”
One of these days Roberts will turn off his office light for the last time, take up his garden tools, and see where “Seva” leads next.