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Americans with Disabilities Act

Due to walkway reconstruction, Harborfront Park in Port Jefferson is currently closed to the public.

In an exclusive interview, Village of Port Jefferson Mayor Lauren Sheprow offered updates on the park project, outlining the motivations guiding this initiative.

“We wanted to make sure that we could do the whole park with whatever solution we came up with,” she said. “The priority was safety, and then fiscal responsibility was the second responsibility,” leading to the choice of asphalt.

Roger Corcella, project manager for the park, said the preexisting walkways were not adequately maintained, prompting safety concerns from village officials.

He said the walkways were “in desperate need of repair,” noting, “It wasn’t safe to walk anymore, especially if you had any physical issues. It wasn’t [Americans with Disabilities Act]-compliant.”

Corcella added that the village considered various factors before deciding on asphalt for the walkways. He said the village required a material that would be cost-effective, durable, eco-friendly, customizable, ADA-compliant and require minimal maintenance.

He pointed to other municipalities, such as Brookhaven and Babylon, which use asphalt on park surfaces. “This is a very common practice to use this,” he said.

Further defending the choice of material, Corcella noted that asphalt enables Harborfront Park to serve residents as “a 12-month park” due to simple snow removal service.

During the November general meeting of the village board of trustees, former Mayor Margot Garant objected to the use of asphalt over stamped concrete due to environmental and permeability concerns [See story, “Harborfront Park walkways spark debate, former and current Port Jeff officials clash over materials,” Nov. 9, TBR News Media]. Responding to the objections, Sheprow reiterated her public safety concerns.

“We get way too many reports of trips and falls in the community and didn’t want Harborfront Park to be one of those locations,” the mayor said. “Therefore, we had to look at the whole entire park and look at resurfacing the walkways around the entire park.”

“We want to make the park accessible to everybody, and if we put in stamped concrete, we wouldn’t be able to do the whole park,” she added.

To finance the costs associated with the walkway reconstruction project, which totals $248,907, the village board is making use of grants from Suffolk County and the Town of Brookhaven that will subsidize over a third of the overall expense.

“We were looking at $90,000 that would help us pay for this project,” Sheprow said. “Had we not acted immediately, we wouldn’t have received it,” adding, “In order to be eligible for those grants, the understanding was that [the project] would have to be for the entire park. … We needed to be compliant with the requirements of the grants.”

During the interview, Sheprow referred to the practice of “deferred maintenance.” Given the safety concerns identified with the walkways, she concluded that the administration had to act.

“If you don’t address a situation when it first becomes an issue, it becomes an even bigger issue,” she said, adding, “My goal was not to defer the maintenance of the park any longer — to let it become a bigger issue — but to address it immediately.”

Corcella said he aims to complete the walkway reconstruction project by mid-December. To view the village’s full Q&A page on the Harborfront Park project, visit portjeff.com/harborfrontparkconstruction.

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The Rocky Point Middle School’s Robo Eagles, from left, coach Mark Moorman, Kristian Hald, Alex Grundmann, Matteo Gravinese, Neyo Alabi and Cooper Peterson, practice for the March 1 LEGO tournament. Photo by Kyle Barr

Alex Grundmann presses the button on the LEGO robotics piece, and he and his five teammates stare with held breath at the small four-wheeled device as it rolls down the table. The little machine, programmed and built by them from LEGOs, moves and pushes a tower to the correct position a few feet from its start. It’s just one task the students programmed it to do. 

The Rocky Point Robo Eagles, a middle school LEGO robotics team, placed in last month’s qualifiers, and will be competing March 1. Photo by Kyle Barr

Alex, 14, is just below eye height with his fellows on the Rocky Point Middle School Robotics team, but normally, that’s not the case. As he’s bound to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, he’s often a good foot lower to the ground and unable to reach the table at competitions that are about 3 feet up. 

But despite their ages, the students on the team had an engineering mind-set, and their first thought when Alex wanted to join the team in the eighth grade was, simply, why not a ramp?

Alex had participated in the club in sixth grade, which is a beginners course where students do not compete, unlike the other teams for later grades at both the middle and high schools. When it came time for seventh grade, Alex did not compete, saying he was originally daunted, knowing he couldn’t reach up to the tables.

His longtime friend at school, Cooper Peterson, asked him to come join the team.

“When I didn’t come back, you said you should come back and see what we can do,” Alex said of his friend. The coach initially told the student that, if he couldn’t reach the table, he could help in designing and programming, but that easily wasn’t enough for either Alex or anyone else on his team. 

The crew first made a ramp prototype out of pallet wood, and then later, Alex’s father, Richard, who works at Riverhead Building Supply, constructed the modern ramp out of varnished plywood. The ramp is made to fold up and roll around on caster wheels. 

“Honestly, I’m just happy,” Alex said and looked around at his teammates and coach. “I was a bit discouraged at first, but now I’m happy to meet fantastic people like you guys, to be able to compete and have fun doing it.” 

The robotics team also designed a lip for the top portion of the ramp to stop Alex or any other wheelchair-bound participant from accidentally rolling off.

Alex Grundmann has taken part in designing a ramp that allows him to participate in robotics competitions. Photo by Kyle Barr

For this year’s FIRST LEGO League qualifiers, the theme of the event was City Shaper, and students were asked to identify a problem in their community and resolve it. Interestingly for team coach Mark Moorman, the parameters of the contest were vague on just what community it was talking about.

“It could be your neighborhood, could be New York,” he said. “In this case, it was the robotics community — the problem with the robotics community is that it wasn’t accessible to kids in wheelchairs.”

The Rocky Point Robo Eagles placed fifth in the “table” section of the competition, which is the technical part of the robotics portion, but came in first for the project research award at the FLL qualifiers at Huntington High School Jan. 25. The team did their research project presentation on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and their display board included information about the ADA, details about their ramp and also an interview with FLL co-director Janet Anderson, with a quote saying, “We will try to implement this in our administration and possibly put online instructions to building a ramp on the FLL website,” with an additional promise to perhaps make such a ramp standard throughout the competition in the U.S.

The team got most of its points when Alex was up on the ramp, and with their efforts, the team has qualified for the Long Island championship March 1 at Longwood High School. Teams that place well in that punch tickets to either the nationals or the world tournament. 

Anderson declined to comment for the article on the project, saying it would not be fair to the other teams competing in early March.

Alex’s family was amazed at how their young family member and his team pulled this off. 

“I’m happy he’s allowed to be included and has something that he likes to do,” his younger sister Ava said. “Because he likes a lot of things, but he really likes robotics.”

Christine Vay, his grandmother, was even amazed at the innovation the students had pulled off.

“It’s such a simple idea, I’m surprised nobody had thought of it before,” she said.

Alex Grundmann uses the ramp for the first time at the Jan. 25 LEGO qualifiers.

Alex’s mother, Aisha Grundmann, said she has long tried to advocate for her son to never balk at any activity, whether it’s traveling internationally or even driving a boat or BMX riding. Not only is Alex making strides for himself in doing what he wants to do, but he’s also paving the way for others with disabilities to participate.

Moorman echoed the mother’s thoughts, saying this project goes beyond a simple middle school class presentation.

“STEM is absolutely super important, but how many students like Alex are out there and aren’t participating because they physically can’t?” he said. “My guess is the league was just never faced with this.”

Though this may be the first time a young person in a wheelchair showed he could compete in the LEGO competition, Alex’s mother said she doubted it was the first time anyone with such a disability has been discouraged from participating. Parents, she said, should never feel like their child can’t participate.

“It’s about making lives better for everyone else too,” she said.

Jeannean Mercuri, vice president of the Nassau-Suffolk Horsemen’s Association, mounts Cricket the horse on the new trail hub in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens. Photo from DEC

By Desirée Keegan

A day when Montauk and New York City are connected across Long Island by trails might not be too far off.

On Sept. 22, the Department of Environmental Conservation celebrated the completion of a piece of the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest Multi-Use Trail Hub Project. The project is an effort to connect trail systems across Rocky Point, Ridge, Yaphank and Shirley. The entire trail system when completed will pass through the DEC’s Pine Barrens, Suffolk County and Town of Brookhaven parkland, and end in the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge.

The new trail hub can be found on the north side of Middle Country Road in Ridge, between Wading River Road and Woodlot Road.

“The completion of this trail hub is an instrumental step in the effort to connect Long Island’s trail systems,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said. “The multiple features of this hub will allow local residents and visitors, young and old, and of any ability, to take advantage of Long Island’s stunning natural diversity.”

The new hub, located on the south end of the Rocky Point Pine Barrens State Forest, is expected to be one of the central public access spots for the new trail system. It features a car and horse trailer parking lot, a newly built half-mile Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible hiking trail, an accessible horse mounting platform, and a half-mile connector to an existing horse and hiking trail.

Carrie Meek Gallagher, New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation's Regional Director, speaking during the grand opening of the new trail hub in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens. Photo from DEC
Carrie Meek Gallagher, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Regional Director, speaking during the grand opening of the new trail hub in the Rocky Point Pine Barrens. Photo from DEC

“I am fortunate to represent one of the most beautiful regions of New York State,” Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said. “As the sponsor of the legislation that created the Pine Barrens Preserve, I am pleased that we are creating an opportunity for more individuals to access the trails. The ADA accessibility will enable those with mobility issues to enjoy more of Long Island’s natural beauty firsthand.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) also commended the DEC for its work with the ADA.

“It’s very important that all residents get the opportunity to share in the natural beauty that surrounds us and we must do whatever we can to preserve it for generations to come,” he said.

The project began in October 2014, with funding from NY Works, and was completed in June for a total cost of $460,000. The trail hub is located on the property of the former Lustgarden Nursery in Ridge. In April, the DEC worked with Students Taking Action for Tomorrow’s Environment in an Arbor Day reforestation effort. The student volunteers planted 250 seedlings of native New York tree species.

“The new trail hub is about connecting people with nature and making it easier to get out and explore Long Island’s treasure of trails and the beautiful wildlands they traverse,” Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said.

The DEC acquired the 274-acre site in 1996 from Baier Lustgarten. It was the site of Baier Lustgarten Farms and Nursery, which used the acreage to plant nursery stock, including native and non-native trees, shrubs and ornamentals. Several neglected structures were razed from the property, including a house, a barn, greenhouses and cottages for farm hands.

“The new multi-use trail hub is a wonderful community centerpiece that gives residents greater access to enjoy the beautiful Rocky Point Pine Barrens,” Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said. “The new hub connects several communities and allows for hiking, horseback riding and bike riding. The DEC has done a wonderful job in creating this very important greenway park that will truly make a difference as we experience our spectacular outdoor environment.”

Xavier Palacios file photo by Rohma Abbas

Huntington school district may soon make ramps and restrooms more accessible to people with disabilities.

The school board approved the addition of the capital reserve proposition to the May 17 ballot with a six to one vote at a meeting on March 21.

If passed, the proposition would use almost $2.5 million of the district’s building improvement fund, or capital reserve, to update eight Huntington schools and make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Superintendent Jim Polansky said the desire to become compliant with the ADA was not mandated, but it’s possible the state could block other capital improvement propositions if ADA requirements within a district are not met.

“There are some needs that really should have been addressed as far back as 20 years ago,” Polansky said at the meeting. “We’re not looking to refit the entire building. We’re looking to just put the basics in place. Those basics are ramps and at least one bathroom.”

Polansky said there are contingency plans in place for emergencies that might arise during the course of a school year which would require a ramp in or out of a Huntington district building, but this proposition would provide permanent solutions.

J. Taylor Finley Middle School, Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School and Flower Hill Primary School are among several of the buildings that would be equipped with ADA-compliant restrooms. ADA-compliant ramps would be added to a few schools, including Woodhull Intermediate School, Jefferson Primary School and Huntington High School. The high school would also get an ADA-compliant wheelchair lift and a compliant locker room restroom.

Xavier Palacios was the lone board member against adding the proposition to the ballot.

“These ADA requirements or suggestions have been around for almost two decades and we’ve submitted several capital proposals and they’ve never been stopped in the past, have they?” Palacios asked prior to the vote.

Polansky called it a roll of the dice to submit a different capital proposition to the state prior to making the ADA-compliant upgrades. “Aside from the fact that I think it’s the right thing to do,” he added.

“How do we prioritize this over needing a new roof?” Palacios asked.

Another board member, Jennifer Hebert, weighed in on the discussion.

“We don’t want to have a student showing up needing these kinds of accommodations and have to be retrofitting it as they’re in the building,” Hebert said. “We should do it now, so that if and when we have students that have these needs, we’ve already got everything equipped for them in the building.”

The state comptroller’s office released an audit report in March, which concluded Huntington exceeded the amount of money legally allowed in capital reserves for the previous three school years. By law, a district cannot have more than 4 percent of the ensuing school year’s budget saved in capital reserves, according to the report. Any money over that limit must be used to make improvements in the district. Thus, this proposition would help the district use the money currently sitting in its reserve fund.

‘CinemAbility’ film director Jenni Gold with actress Jane Seymour. Photo courtesy of ‘CinemAbility'

St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson invites the public to a free week of movies filled with inspiration, perspiration and determination. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, St. Charles will host a moviethon from Sept. 28 through Oct. 2. Each night, starting at 6 p.m. at the Wisdom Conference Center, the hospital will host films that share stories of people with different abilities.

The movies include “Wampler’s Ascent,” which chronicles Stephen Wampler’s remarkable climb to the top of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. Confined to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, Wampler nevertheless did the equivalent of 20,000 pull-ups over the course of five nights and six days to make what is often a landmark rock climb.

“This is a story about a gentleman who is very visibly disabled,” said Jennifer Semel, medical director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at St. Charles and one of the organizers of the event. “He is in constant motion. He has to lean on his limbs to quiet them down. It shows what perseverance can do.”

Semel said her work at the hospital centers around making patients as functionally independent as possible, which, she said, “goes hand in hand with the ADA.”

Semel’s goal is to take people who have spinal injuries or strokes and return them as much as possible to their quality of life. Her staff also works with children born with cerebral palsy or other conditions. Semel finds her work “very rewarding” because she and her staff can help people with various challenges gain independence.

The movies may help members of the community understand the world of people with disabilities better and may inspire them to become involved and contribute where they can, she said. “Exposing individuals who don’t have physical or developmental challenges to the world that does gets them to see the world through those people’s eyes,” Semel said.

All of the films “expose us to different sides of disabilities,” she said. “Some of the challenges and successes re-instill in all of us the importance of equal rights for people with disabilities.”

While the movies will provide a window into the lives of people with different abilities, they aren’t as effective as a day of real life experience, Semel said. When she was training as a physician, she had to spend a day in a wheelchair.

“You never know what that’s like until you’ve done it,” she said. “Not having a curb on a Manhattan sidewalk can be the end of an outing. The challenges in our world that we don’t recognize as people without physical disabilities are hard to capture” completely in the movies.

Semel is encouraged by the progress she sees in the community. “There have been tremendous strides in terms of making places, restaurants and public places accessible to individuals,” Semel said. “There’s no question that there’s a long way to go.”

Semel coordinated the moviethon with Mike Apostoli, the care coordinator in the Community Re-Entry Program at St. Charles. Apostoli facilitates the Patient and Family Advisory Council, which is a group of patients and caregivers who have been through the rehabilitation program. The group meets monthly and was pleased to provide feedback on the movie choices.

“We tried to stick to movies that were consistent with what it is that we do here,” Apostoli said. “It reflects the patients we see with similar challenges, limitations and assets.”

Apostoli said stroke, spinal cord and brain injuries are often like a tsunami for people’s lives, transporting them to another world. “If we can give people who have not gone through that a glimpse into what that’s like, we will have met a very large challenge to begin to formulate better attitudes,” which includes getting services approved through insurance.

The movies profile compelling people who have sometimes achieved something extraordinary. Apostoli suggested the public can become aware that the average person with a disability may not achieve something as remarkable, but they can overcome obstacles to have a meaningful day. “They may not be climbing mountains, but that doesn’t mean what they are doing isn’t just as difficult,” he said.

Each night, a senior member of the staff will introduce the movie. Semel said she hopes to invite individuals with disabilities and the community to join the celebration. She is also hopeful that this may become an annual event.

Semel said the group screened 27 films and narrowed the list down to five. Along with “Wampler’s Ascent,” which will be screened on Sept. 29, the screenings will include “CinemAbility.” Narrated by Jane Seymour, the film takes a look at the evolution of disability in entertainment by interviewing filmmakers, studio executives and celebrities, including Jamie Foxx, Helen Hunt, Marlee Matlin, Ben Affleck, Gary Sinese and Geena Davis, on Sept. 28.

“Endless Abilities,” a movie about four best friends who have physical disabilities who drive across the country seeking adaptive sports for people like them will be screened on Sept. 30. The movie includes footage of these athletes water skiing, snow skiing and surfing.

“The Intouchables,” the French subtitled film based on a true story about a friendship between a handicapped millionaire and his ex-con caretaker who refuses to take pity on him, will be screened on Oct. 1 followed by “A Whole Lott More” on Oct. 2, which examines the impact of Lott Industries’ struggles and examines the world of employment options for people with disabilities while focusing on three people who each have a different attitude toward work. The film was the winner of the Cincinnati Film Festival for Best Documentary in 2013.

St. Charles Hospital is located at 200 Belle Terre Road, Port Jefferson. The moviethon is free but advance reservations are required for each film by calling 631-474-6797.