Dreams of Accessibility & Peace

Dreams of Accessibility & Peace

Each year the National Organization on Disability honors one American city for its efforts to provide accessibility and opportunity to people with disabilities. Recent honorees include Cambridge, Massachusetts; Phoenix, Arizona; Houston, Texas; and the 2009 choice, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, has yet to make the cut. But Els Nieuwenhuijsen, M.P.H. ’85, Ph.D., is working to change that.

“Disability is not on most people’s radar screen,” says the Netherlands native, who has lived in Ann Arbor for the past 25 years. Her father lost part of his leg in an accident when he was 12 years old, and Nieuwenhuijsen (pronounced NEE-wand-how-sen) grew up attuned to the needs—and capabilities—of people with disabilities. “My dad wore a prosthesis for 82 years,” she says. “He played tennis and bicycled. He started a support group for people with lower-extremity amputations, and it became a national hot line.”

An adjunct faculty member in the UM Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Nieuwenhuijsen would like to see Ann Arbor become a model for other cities in terms of its accessibility not only to people with disabilities but also to veterans and older people. She’s working with members of the Ann Arbor City Council, the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, faculty from Wayne State University, Arts Alliance, and School of Public Health Senior Researcher Laura Ghiron to implement changes.

As a first step, the group is trying to raise awareness of disability-related accessibility for local arts and cultural events by promoting large-print programs, assistive-listening devices, captioning on movie screens, and accessible public transportation. They also hope to create a website that informs people about the accessibility of Ann Arbor cultural and arts venues.

Nieuwenhuijsen’s larger dream is for disability to be recognized as a major public health issue. She co-founded the American Public Health Association’s Disability Section in 1988, but she says disability still needs to be assimilated into all aspects of public health. Specifically, she’d like to see the profession:

  • Include more disability issues, such as access, in its health-promotion and health-education efforts
  • Collaborate more closely with colleagues in the field of rehabilitation (she recommends the website www.ncpad.org)
  • Focus more on the prevention of secondary health conditions, a major risk factor for people with disabilities and chronic conditions
  • Find more ways for people with disabilities to become involved in public health

The issue of disability is inextricably connected to an aging population, Nieuwenhuijsen says. “So it’s not just people with disabilities who benefit from things like curb cuts, legible type, and accessible public transportation—it’s all of us.”

Speaking of Peace

Last year, in acknowledgement of her 15-year public campaign to prevent violence, the American Public Health Association gave Farideh Kiomehr-Dadsetan, M.P.H. ’71, Dr.P.H. ’73, the organization’s first-ever Sidel-Levy Award for Peace. The Iranian-born Kiomehr-Dadsetan is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit International Health and Epidemiology Research Center (IHERC) in Sherman Oaks, California, whose outreach efforts include the Anti-Violence Campaign for Peace project. A key aim of the project is to educate both parents and children about the hazards of guns, toy guns, toy weapons, violent video games, and violence. As Kiomehr-Dadsetan says, “Guns are for killing, toys are for playing. The combination of the two is deadly. We urge parents to give kids an instrument of construction and life, not an instrument of destruction and death.

"My dream is that one day we will all live in a peaceful world. Usually when I explain this to people, they say, ‘No, that’s not possible. We’ve always had war. It’s just a dream.’ But I think if we can educate people from a very young age and try to teach them nonviolence and peace, then when they grow up—because they are hopefully going to be the leaders of this world—we would all live in peace. Peace in the truest sense, not just in appearance. I believe strongly that we all have been desensitized to think that violence and war are an inevitable part of life. But that is a false conception. We need to unwire ourselves, to get resensitized. That’s what we’re trying to do with our project.

"I am an epidemiologist, and I believe very strongly that violence is a public health issue, because violence kills more people than many diseases. Today in the United States, gun violence alone kills over 30,000 people a year. And we’re not at war in this country—we live here supposedly in peace. I always say in my speeches that I don’t expect this to be a quick fix, because anything that changes quickly can change back quickly. I don’t believe in banning as much as in education. Violence is a disease, and the only way to prevent it is education. It’s like having a vaccination for influenza."

For more information, or to volunteer for the Anti-Violence Campaign for Peace project, visit www.iherc.org.