Disability-friendly dog park in the works

By Jessica Brown, @BrownJessicaJ

SIU architecture students and Supporting Independence through Teamwork Service Dogs are joining forces to create a dog park accessible to those with disabilities. 

The national organization trains and provides service dogs for people with disabilities and chronic medical diagnoses, while the student group, Freedom by Design, brings ideas to life in order to assist those with accessibility needs.

The group typically consists of 10 to 15 members, all of who study interior design or architecture. Katelyn Walker, director of the group, said the organization was tasked with finding and completing a design project at the beginning of the fall semester.

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“I started looking at people I had met before on campus and I contacted SIT Service Dogs,” said Walker, a senior from Manteno studying architecture.

SIT’s owner and founder Lex Dietz, an SIU psychology alumna from Bloomington, initially wanted to add a ramp to the back of SIT’s training center in Ava.

But the students told Dietz they could make a dog park behind the training center, to which she happily agreed.

“We’ve never done a therapy dog park,” she said. “I’m pretty sure there’s nothing like that in our area.”

The 150-by-100 foot area will offer safe and easily accessible amenities such as padded walkways and ramps.

“When you’re a seizure patient and you go out in public, you can fall and hurt yourself badly,” Dietz said. “Cement is your worst enemy. Freedom by Design is creating softer areas in the park to avoid bashing of the lips, nose, mouth and teeth, as well as preventing further brain injury.”

Walker said Freedom by Design will waive labor costs for the project. SIT and Freedom by Design will gather money and materials through fundraising. While hopeful to raise $3,000, SIT has raised $335 through a GoFundMe page, which it created Jan. 23.

Walker said her group will use as many recycled materials as possible and avoid sharp corners during construction.

“The current design has a lot of organic shapes,” she said. “It’s better for wheelchairs and better for dogs. Sharp corners aren’t the easiest to walk around or turn around.”

Nicole Dethrow, a junior from Chester studying biomedical science, said the park will benefit to those who use a wheelchair.

Dethrow is afflicted with muscular dystrophy, a disease that wears down muscles over time. She will receive her service dog, Declan, from SIT within the next couple of months.

“Riding around in grass and stuff is difficult,” Dethrow said. “Making things bigger and less steep will make navigation easier.”

Declan is trained to open doors by pressing accessible buttons, carry things for Dethrow and pick items up for her if she drops them.

“He’s also learning how to give the cashier money and take the change,” she said.

While Dethrow is SIT’s only client at SIU, the company caters to those with various disabilities nationwide, ranging from 5 to 65 years of age.

The group also tries to minimize costs for clients. Training mobility assistance dogs, medical alert dogs and seizure response dogs for clients does not come cheap, Dietz said.

“It costs about $25,000 to raise a service dog from start to finish,” Dietz said. “We ask the clients to fundraise less than 45 percent of that.”

The remaining money is raised through offering services to the community for a fee, such as canine therapy, educational and training programs, Dietz said.

She said SIT is planning an additional fundraising event for the project.

“A trivia night is one of the things we’re looking at doing,” Dietz said. “But if we can find a way to get a hold of wheelchairs, we’re thinking of having people pledge for participants to ride around in them. That way we’d be raising awareness as well as funds.”

Dietz said awareness helps others understand the difficulty of navigation as a person with disabilities.

“When you’re not in a wheelchair or when you’re not somebody who deals with seizure disorder, you don’t realize how inaccessible some places are,” she said.

Construction for the project begins April 11 and is scheduled to be completed April 19.

SIT is accepting donations via SIT’s GoFundMe page or sent by check to 519 Kilpatrick Rd., Ava.

Those interested in donating materials or volunteering may contact SIT at (618) 426-5666 or [email protected].

Jessica Brown can be reached at [email protected].

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