Constance Alexander: Murray not resting on its laurels; focus group examines needs of disabled

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Make no mistake. Murray, Ky., has rightfully earned every kudo it has received. No token distinctions on our community resume. From Kentucky’s Friendliest Hometown; to Playful City, USA; to #1 retirement community in the nation; to the home of MSU, highest ranked comprehensive university in Kentucky, Murray-Calloway County sets high standards for itself and has a variety of awards and recognition to prove it.

In spite of those achievements, the community is never satisfied to rest on its laurels, which is why the Murray-Calloway County Hospital Foundation recently invited an array of leaders and decision-makers to participate in a focus group regarding the range of needs of adults with disabilities in our community.

Insights and suggestions raised during the focus group provided crucial information for Keith Travis, VP of Development at the community hospital, as he and a team of local artists collaborate on an application for an Arts Access Grant from the Kentucky Arts Council. In 2014, the Foundation received an Arts Access grant directed at the elderly and their caregivers. In 2016, to celebrate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Arts Council has specified that all applications for the upcoming round of grants concentrate on people with disabilities.

According to the guidelines posted on the KAC website, “Competitive projects will showcase art by artists with disabilities, provide professional support for those artists, and educate Kentuckians about living with disabilities.”

During the focus group last week, participants were asked to imagine the local landscape for adults with disabilities ten years from now, if the grant is to be effective. The very first audience response was in the form of an imagined headline: “Murray got it right” in terms of addressing the needs of people with disabilities. To do that, one participant emphasized the importance of city and county cooperation.

The goal of integrating people with disabilities into community arts activities and events, rather than grouping them by disability came up several times. Jessica Evans, with Murray Human Rights Commission, said, “Inclusion will be vital to this project. Community education and involvement are essential elements.”

Elaborating on this theme, Holly Bloodworth, 2014 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and former board president of Playhouse in the Park, talked about the Playhouse’s success with the Penguin Project, which is part of a national program to provide children with special needs a valuable recreational experience and an opportunity to display their creative talents.

The Penguin Project pairs mentors with performers with disabilities, so they work cooperatively, side-by-side. Mentors provide guidance and encouragement, as needed, through a rigorous rehearsal period leading to a final public theatre production. A similar model could be applied to arts involvement for adults with special needs. In addition, Bjarne Hansen, of the local transit service, suggested the group find ways for the grant to bring the arts to the artists, in town and out, including the furthest reaches of Calloway County.

During the 90-minute focus group, needs and strengths associated with adults with disabilities were identified, and community and non-profit leaders brainstormed with artists and directors of arts organizations to recommend some broad goals for the Arts Access grant application. Of the 33 participants, 18 volunteered to write letters of support for the project, including representatives from Special Olympics, WKMS-FM, Center for Accessible Living, Human Rights Commission, Spring Creek Health Care, the public library, Murray-Calloway Transit Authority, MSU’s College of Education and Human Services, the Chamber of Commerce, and WATCH, Inc.

“This is very important for our community,” Chief of Police Jeff Liles declared. Mark McLemore, who runs the Murray-Calloway County Senior Citizen Center, expressed interested in sponsoring an activity or events associated with the grant. “I want to be involved,” he said, “either as an individual or through my organization. I’m just not sure how at this point.”

County Judge Executive Larry Elkins echoed that sentiment, and pledged to write a letter of support.

Margaret Pittman-Munke, MSU associate professor in Education and Human Services suggested that developing a resource list of services and support systems for people with disabilities would be a useful project, and she volunteered to get her students involved in the process.

With a February 16 deadline looming, and additional data to be gathered from people with disabilities and others who could not attend the focus group, Keith Travis will be busy completing the grant application. If initial response of the focus group is any indication, however, Murray-Calloway County Hospital Foundation can look forward to leading a comprehensive arts project that has enthusiastic backing from a caring community.

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Constance Alexander is a faculty scholar in the Teacher Quality Institute at Murray State University. She is a freelance writer who writes a regular column for her local newspaper and for KyForward.

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