“People with disabilities are just like people without disabilities,” says Janet Hand, staff liaison to the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission.

“People without disabilities are ‘temporarily able-bodied’ because most people will develop a temporary or permanent disability in their lifetime.”

During Disabilities Awareness Month in October, Hand and her staff set up a booth at the Santa Monica Farmers Market and went into the community to let people know the commission exists, and to inform the public about its services.

Formed two years ago, the Disabilities Commission advises the Santa Monica City Council and city staff on matters of importance to disabled residents and visitors to Santa Monica.

A disability, as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act, is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of life’s activities.

“Santa Monica takes the needs of the disabled into consideration and strives to achieve full accessibility and to fund programs specifically for the disabled,” Hand says.

One of the ways the commission has responded to the needs of the community is to enhance accessibility to the beach and beach parking lots.

A wooden walkway near Casa Del Mar Hotel extends from the sidewalk across the sand allowing increased accessibility to the beach.

Hand says the city has two sand chairs available at two Perry’s beach rental locations, but they aren’t self-propelled and many people who would use them don’t want help. Information, Perry’s, (310) 452-7609.

She adds that Florida is testing various surfaces to achieve accessibility all the way to the water, which will eventually allow everyone to enjoy the beach.

Signs at beach parking lots were changed to indicate which lots had accessibility parking and the parking spaces were redistributed within the lots, according to Hand.

Although accessibility to streets and buildings is focused on wheelchair users, Hand says it also concerns those who are blind.

Other city planning considerations that support the disabled are timing the traffic lights so they’re long enough for a blind person or for someone with limited mobility to get across the street.

The commission also recommended training for all staff members who come in contact with the public to enhance the staff customer service skills and awareness when serving people with disabilities.

Hand says the commission has been proactive in sending budget recommendations to the city, such as requesting that the current funding of agencies that serve the disabled continue at a steady level.

The city funds numerous agencies and programs that assist Santa Monica residents, such as the School Days program for preschoolers with disabilities, at two Santa Monica pre-schools, through the Computer Access Center; case management at Common Ground, a Westside HIV community agency; exams, mental health counseling and training for those losing their vision at the Center for the Partially Sighted; and case management at the Westside Center for Independent Living.

In addition, the city funds the Home Access Program, available to any renter with a disability in Santa Monica whose home needs a modification to continue living in it. Modifications are most often a ramp to get up a few steps into the unit and grab bars in the bathroom.

Hand says the biggest need of and the number one complaint by the disabled in Santa Monica is affordable housing. She says that 70 percent of those with disabilities are underemployed or unemployed and studies have shown that the limited affordable housing available is usually not accessible.

Looking forward, Hand says further studies on the housing issue are planned, and other potential changes such as contracts for new city facilities being awarded to contractors with the most disability-friendly design, wheelchairs on the bike path, and more closed captioning on CityTV.

In October the commission sponsored the Disabilities Awareness Month Poster Contest, open to any Santa Monica student or resident from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Students can use paint, crayon, collage, or pencil to draw anything on paper that represents the theme, “A Community Welcomes All Abilities.”

Two winners in the kindergarten-through-second-grade level and two from the third-to-fifth-grade group will receive a gift certificate to a local bookstore.

All winning posters will be displayed in the lobby of City Hall from Monday, November 1st, to Thursday, November 11th, and will be posted on the Disabilities Commission Web site.

Hand says people with disabilities are all around the community and the public doesn’t have to avoid them.

“Curiosity is okay as long as it is respectful and polite,” Hand says.

Hand hopes raising awareness will help the public recognize the person, not the disability.

Information, Disabilities Commission, (310) 458-8701.

Julie Kirst can be reached at jkmailtalk@yahoo.com