Accessible Health and Wellness Center

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Pardon our dust, please; Paraquad is expanding!

Over the course of its 46-year history, Paraquad has evolved from improving opportunities for people with disabilities primarily through advocacy and awareness efforts to one of the largest Centers for Independent Living in the country. Today, we continue our legacy of advocacy while also providing an array of programs to empower our participants.

With its largest expansion underway, Paraquad will again show its leadership in the St. Louis community.

The scope of the expansion is impressive: projects include an expanded Accessible Health and Wellness Center that will serve the fitness needs people with disabilities, a restaurant and training kitchen to increase economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities, a universally designed demonstration apartment and a renovation of the organization’s Oakland Ave. headquarters.

Construction is funded through a combination of New Markets Tax Credits investment and corporate, foundation and individual support. The New Markets Tax Credits also allow Paraquad to restructure debt obligations under more favorable terms.

Paraquad President and CEO Aimee Wehmeier said that starting construction is, itself, an important milestone.

“It’s been a long process,” Wehmeier said. “It started about five years ago with us asking the community, ‘What are the greatest needs?'”

One of the many answers to the question involved the disparity in fitness opportunities for people with disabilities, many of whom experience secondary health conditions associated with a lack of activity.

“We simply did not have enough resources for people who wanted to exercise,” she said, explaining that Paraquad’s current Health and Wellness Center cannot meet the community’s demand.

About 125 participants use the gym each year and there are dozens more on a waiting list — without marketing the program.

Accessible Health and Wellness Center

The new 22,000-square-foot center will feature more than 40 pieces of specialized exercise equipment and enable up to 500 people with disabilities to achieve their fitness goals each year. The new facility will be located on Berthold Ave., directly behind Paraquad.

Wehmeier, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair, said the concept of exercise for a person with a disability can be difficult to imagine until you see a place like the Accessible Health and Wellness Center and have the opportunity to watch gym members use adaptive equipment.

“Traditional gyms aren’t set up very well for people with disabilities in terms of access and specialized assistance. If I rolled into a local gym in my power wheelchair and said, ‘I’d like to get a trainer to help me exercise,’ I think most facilities would not know where to begin,” she said.

“In addition, individuals who go through rehab often want to continue exercising, but still may have a need for one-on-one support and/or greater accessibility. The Accessible Health and Wellness Center bridges that gap for individuals who could eventually transition to a traditional gym. It also serves the needs of people who need additional specialized exercise and rehabilitation after leaving a facility.”

According to data compiled by Washington University School of Medicine, during the first 12 weeks of exercise at Paraquad’s Health and Wellness Center, participants experience:

  • A 25 percent increase in physical strength.
  • A 10 percent increase in endurance.
  • Reduction in secondary conditions, such as poor balance leading to falls, depression and high blood pressure.

“The data shows that regular exercise increases the health and quality of life for people with disabilities,” said Dr. Lindsey Bean-Kampwerth, Director of Assistive Technology at Paraquad. “Just like for people without disabilities, exercise makes a huge difference in the ability for people to do functional everyday tasks and be involved in the community. Another benefit is preventing secondary health issues related to metabolic or cardiovascular disorders.”

The annual cost to operate the expanded center will be about $300,000. Fundraising and ongoing, on-site partnerships with organizations like Washington University School of Medicine, which conducts research on the benefits of exercise, and Logan University, which provides chiropractic services, will help offset operational expenses.

“We know the opportunity to exercise helps people with disabilities increase their independence, whether by developing the strength to transfer to and from a wheelchair or the coordination to walk without an assistive device,” said Wehmeier. “And as people build their independence, they also can become more confident about trying new things, like getting out more in the community, going back to school or getting a job. That’s why expanding exercise opportunities is so important.”

Participants also learn from each other.

“For some members, the peer-to-peer relationships are the most valuable part of exercise. Where else can you find people who share your experience and who offer friendship and tricks of the trade for increasing independence or simply making life easier?” she said.

The monthly cost for participants to work out at the center will remain $55, with a sliding scale depending on economic eligibility. The new, expanded facility is scheduled to open in January 2017.

Another cornerstone of the expansion project will be a restaurant that doubles as an employment training facility for people with disabilities. Still in developmental stages, the vision of the restaurant is “fast casual,” with a training kitchen and hands-on work experience for people with disabilities to achieve competitive employment.

The restaurant’s mission, said Wehmeier, is “to provide the tools and opportunity for participants to increase their economic self-sufficiency. There is no greater barrier to true independence for a person with a disability than the lack of opportunity to work competitively.”

The restaurant will teach transferable skills, explained Wehmeier, related directly to food preparation, customer service and management. It can also be an introduction to employment for younger participants who may be going to school.

The restaurant also addresses a long-standing challenge, Wehmeier said.

“Of all of the things that the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) promised, the goal of increased employment opportunities has never been realized. In fact, we are in no better place now than we were 25 years ago.”

In August 2016, according to the United States Department of Labor, 19.8 percent of people with disabilities ages 16 years and over were in the workforce. Among people without disabilities, 68.8 percent of people were in the workforce.

At the same time, the restaurant, which will serve the public, will not be evaluated solely on whether it has accomplished its training goals. To be successful, it must also succeed in the ultra-competitive dining field.

“We don’t want to be recognized for our staff with disabilities, we want to be recognized for our amazing food and first-class service and experience. We want every aspect of the restaurant to be an opportunity for people to learn and develop skills.”

Paraquad’s Vocational Services Department will develop a curriculum for new restaurant employees. The current working plan is for the majority of positions to be fluid.

“We will provide the accessibility and supports necessary for job seekers to learn valuable skills. We envision volunteer and part-time employees gaining job skills that are in high demand and then taking their skills into hospitality and service industry jobs in our community,” said Chris Camene, Paraquad’s Director of Vocational Services.

The restaurant and training kitchen will be housed in the northeast corner of Paraquad’s headquarters, which is being renovated to better serve the needs of participants, community members and staff.

“It was time to expand from nearly the moment we arrived,” Wehmeier said of Paraquad’s home for the past 10 years at 5240 Oakland Ave., just west of the St. Louis Science Center.

“It’s a good old building, but very much in need of TLC in the form of major renovation. This is an opportunity to demonstrate what full access means in terms of workspace and to be a model center for independent living,” she said.

The renovated space will make full use of universal design principles, Wehmeier explained.

“If we have more universally designed office space, it doesn’t matter who works here. It’s going to be set up and flexible for all abilities,” Wehmeier said.

The renovation includes expanding Paraquad’s Assistive Technology Demonstration Center and outfitting an accessible apartment.

“Technology is a huge component to becoming independent. For me, a roll-in shower and automatic door are must-haves for my home, and Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software enables me to do my job. The apartment and demonstration center will give individuals the opportunity to try out a variety of technologies and make informed decisions on what works or, more importantly, what doesn’t work,” Wehmeier said.

“A person who incurs a spinal cord injury or stroke seldom lives in an accessible home or has knowledge of how to increase accessibility and independence. Providing an immersive experience allows individuals, sometimes for the first time, to focus on the possibilities rather than the barriers. I can tell you a lot of things, but it makes a huge difference to actually see it. Technology will be demonstrated in a real setting.”

The apartment and demonstration center will showcase options for accessible bathrooms; visual cues, including a doorbell and fire alarm with a strobe for people who are deaf; and auditory cues, such as an Amazon Echo, for people who are blind.

“We have a population that is aging, and people want to age in place. Most technology that benefits people with disabilities benefits everyone. Accessibility is flexibility,” Wehmeier said.

Renovations at Paraquad’s headquarters will be complete by Summer 2017, with the restaurant opening to be announced soon.

“We’re very grateful for the community support,” Wehmeier said. “From the monetary investment to volunteer dedication, this project is a statement of generosity and commitment to people with disabilities in our community.”

Jacob Kuerth is the Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator at Paraquad. He can be reached at jkuerth@paraquad.org.

Kevin Condon is the Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Paraquad. He can be reached at kcondon@paraquad.org.

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