Celebrating an Accessible Community in Santa Barbara

Hillside residents living life to its fullest thanks to mobility aids, projects for people with disabilities

Joanne Polacco and Regina Diaz with State Parks Recreation Specialist Kate Wilson and Supervising Ranger Dave Wilson.

Joanne Polacco and Regina Diaz with State Parks Recreation Specialist Kate Wilson and Supervising Ranger Dave Wilson. (Contributed photo)
By Christina Ferguson for Hillside

Joanne Polacco has a love of the ocean, like many of us who are fortunate to call Santa Barbara home.

“Smelling the salty air, listening to the water, and being outdoors…it’s really peaceful,” she comments.

Joanne, age 69, lives at Hillside, a nonprofit in Santa Barbara that provides residential care to 59 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She has lived at Hillside for the past eight years, after spending most of her life in Altadena and Pasadena.

Moving to Hillside has allowed Joanne to be close to her brother and sister and their families, who also live in Santa Barbara. Joanne is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She uses a wheelchair for mobility.

One of Hillside’s pillars is to enable its residents to be engaged and active in the local community. This means getting out and about around town, and doing things they enjoy — things most of us take for granted.

“Thankfully, the days of hiding people with disabilities from public view have for the most part passed, but making sure that change continues to be a reality requires persistence and commitment,” said Craig Olson, President/CEO of Hillside.

Joanne Polacco enjoying the beach from ADA accessible boardwalk.Click to view larger

Joanne Polacco enjoying the beach from ADA accessible boardwalk. (Contributed photo)

“For those living with disabilities, being active and engaged in the community requires outward support and systems that are accessible and provide for their needs.”

While living at Hillside, Joanne has written a book about her life titled, “Looking Forward.” She also has discovered a passion for painting through weekly art classes.

On a beautiful January day, Joanne rolls off a Metropolitan Transit District bus in downtown Carpinteria. Joanne is accompanied on these trips by her Direct Service Instructor (DSI), Regina Diaz of the Independent Living Institute.

Regina has worked with Joanne for almost two years, and they have developed a close relationship.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible boardwalk at Carpinteria State Beach makes it possible for all members of the community, including those who use a wheelchair, to get out over the sand and have a great view of the water. The boardwalk is located at Carpinteria State Beach between Palm Avenue and Linden Avenue. 

Joanne greatly values her time spent out in the community and enjoying the outdoors. Her power wheelchair and the public bus system help make these times possible.

Santa Barbara MTD came to Hillside and parked a bus there for residents to practice getting on and off in their chairs.

Hillside resident Joanne Polacco boarding accessible MTD bus with Regina Diaz from the Independent Living Institute.

Hillside resident Joanne Polacco boarding accessible MTD bus with Regina Diaz from the Independent Living Institute. (Contributed photo)

“It was scary at first and a big challenge for me, but I did it.” said Joanne about learning to drive her power chair onto the bus. 

“Our mission is to enhance the mobility of the South Coast. All of our buses are low-floor, wheelchair accessible with ramps, and they kneel to meet the curb,” said Hillary Blackerby, Planning and Marketing Manager for  Santa Barbara MTD. “We are proud to help provide independence and freedom to travel for everyone in our community.”

One of Joanne’s greatest joys is taking the bus from Hillside to Carpinteria State Beach’s boardwalk.

Joanne shared, “I love being by the ocean and enjoying the fresh air.” 

The ADA accessible boardwalk project came to fruition in 2017.

“Having an accessible boardwalk is a wonderful asset to the whole community of Santa Barbara County,” said Kate Wilson, associate park and recreation specialist for California State Parks. “All of our community members deserve to enjoy the coastal lifestyle and beautiful surroundings of our central coast.

“The boardwalk accomplishes two of our main goals: providing universal beach access and establishing a dune habitat that we can continue to restore.

“This is one of the first beach boardwalks that California State Parks has made. It was quite the engineering feat to account for the dunes. Now, the Carpinteria boardwalk is being used as a model for similar projects in the state.”

The boardwalk is also a fan favorite among dog walkers, whose dogs aren’t allowed on the beach, and parents pushing strollers.

“When we opened the boardwalk, it amazed us how much public use it got,” said Dave Wilson, supervising ranger for State Parks, “It’s incorporated into a lot of locals’ everyday routine.” 

In the summer, State Parks puts mobility mats out on the sand to help beachgoers get even closer to the water. They also have specialized wheelchairs for the beach terrain available to the public free of charge.

“We are glad that Joanne is able to visit the boardwalk on a regular basis,” said Craig Olson, Ppresident/CEO of Hillside. “Having a community of support — including aides, the public bus system, and accessibility of local fixtures for people living with disabilities — makes our goal of ensuring the engagement of our residents with the community around them a reality.” 

You only need to spend a short amount of time with Joanne for her resilience and love of life to become apparent. When asked how she and Regina would spend the rest of their day, Joanne responded, “We’re going to have a lot more fun!”

For more information about Hillside, please visit their website at https://hillsidesb.org/.

To learn more about the boardwalk in Carpinteria, please contact Kate Wilson at Katharine.Wilson@parks.ca.gov.

You can find MTD bus stops and schedules at https://sbmtd.gov/maps-schedules/.

Link to Noozhawk: https://www.noozhawk.com/article/celebrating_an_accessible_community_in_santa_barbara

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