A group of almost 50 employees from the Village of Wilmette and Wilmette Park District recently attended a professional seminar designed to increase disability awareness and build comfort and confidence when interacting with people who have a disability. Wilmette held the first training initiative a year ago and the Wilmette Fire Department followed by incorporating the training into the fire academy. This recent joint seminar is the next step in offering employees the opportunity to ask questions, have fun and interact with JJList.com Disability Players. “I always begin the seminars feeling nervous, but the audience always makes me feel welcome,” says Sarah Armour, a company member of JJsList.com Disability Players since 2011.
The interactive component of the seminar provided employees with scenarios mirroring real-world experiences in a comfortable setting where curiosity and honesty are valued. Most people have natural instincts to help. The Village and Park District employees are no different – which is why so many are drawn to public service. However, employees may lack experience serving people with disabilities and may face challenges when providing customer service when meeting someone who has a disability. “I was really moved by the training because it defied long-held assumptions I’ve had,” shared Wilmette Park District Human Resource Manager Liz Cox. “Case in point, people are often so uncomfortable asking people with disabilities about their disabilities and this training dispelled that thought process.”
The seminar leaders guided attendees through their inexperience and helped them gain confidence greeting and serving community members with disabilities. The most important lesson from the seminar is consistent across all diversity training: use “person-first language.” Person-first language means referring to the person first and the disability second. Reference to disability should only be used when needed. Person-first examples include “the woman who is blind” or “the boy who has autism.”
Another important lesson learned is to allow the person to ask for assistance instead of assuming assistance is needed. All Wilmette Park District programs are inclusive. If a program attendee needs accommodations, attendees ask for accommodations and park district employees work with Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association to provide them.
The Village and Park District value all community members. The opportunity to develop or refine skills in unfamiliar situations is important to creating a welcoming environment and providing exceptional customer service. “Going beyond the basic requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Village and Park District recognize that barriers to full participation in a community come in visible and invisible forms,” said Village Manager Tim Frenzer. “The seminar was a unique and important step to breaking down barriers in order for Wilmette to be a community open to all.”
The training was provided through a grant from New Trier Township.