Wheeling and dealing ...with life
NORTH LIBERTY– She is a reverend, a mother and grandmother. She serves on the executive committee of the Johnson County Democrats and on the Iowa Agency on Aging. An advocate for people living with specific needs, she is the disability caucus chair for the Iowa Democratic Party, has a masters degree in counseling and is a graduate of the chaplaincy program at the University of Iowa.
Diana Coberly is a person first; the fact that she has accomplished so much in life from a wheelchair is secondary.
In fact, she believes, it’s not our accomplishments that should define any of us, no matter how we get them done.
“When I was younger, nobody talked about my disability. It was a taboo subject. Instead, everyone said things like, ‘isn’t it wonderful you are doing all these things?’ But I want to be known for who I am, not because of the things I accomplish despite my disability.”
It’s a stance Coberly has developed over a lifetime of climbing obstacles of all sorts: physical and emotional and attitudinal. In 1951, she contracted polio at the age of five– before Salk’s vaccine was available to the public.
“It has always informed who I am and what I do,” said Coberly. One of her earliest memories is entering first grade in a one-room schoolhouse in western Kansas where she was raised. “I was determined I would not let anyone think of me as handicapped,” she said.
The oldest of seven children, her deep Christian beliefs also shaped her life.
“My faith was very helpful in me getting through a lot of stuff,” said Coberly. “We only survived because we had each other, and I had a deep connection to my faith.”
Married and divorced, Coberly has two children and now three grandchildren. She practiced counseling for alcohol and drug abuse in Kansas, earned her masters degree and opened a private counseling practice in Albuquerque, and then in Kauai, Hawaii. In addition to her academia, Coberly learned many other things as well. Though she had polio in both legs, she learned to snow ski on one leg. She earned her pilot’s license, and trained to scuba dive.
While in New Mexico, though, things began to change for her physically.
“Suddenly, I couldn’t walk very far. I couldn’t use stairs, my leg was hurting so I couldn’t ski that year, and I kept falling down. That was a huge adjustment for me,” Coberly said. “Up until that time, I didn’t let people help me. In fact, I was really quite rude about it. Once I accepted the part of me that is disabled, that is when I feel like my life finally got in order.”
Eventually, Coberly went to seminary school at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., and returned to western Kansas to serve in a small community church.
“I never fit in, politically,” she said. “It’s so conservative.”
A sabbatical allowed her to pursue her goal of becoming a chaplain, and that’s what brought her to the University of Iowa. Coberly became a resident of North Liberty in 2010; it was the same year severe pneumonia exacerbated a diagnosis of emphysema, and at the age of 64, she finally conceded to going on disability.
Her medical considerations may impact how she conducts her day-to-day routines, but there is seemingly nothing that slows Coberly down. Her appointment calendar is typically full, she drives herself all over the region to fill in for vacationing pastors in the United Congregational Church and continues to represent persons with disabilities at various official legislative functions.
But no matter where she is, whether preaching or teaching or doing outreach, Coberly wears an educational hat whenever necessary.
That’s what prompted her to visit the North Liberty City Council members during a meeting last November. Coberly wanted to let them know there were things the city could do to make life on wheels a little smoother ride. There are many businesses and strip malls in North Liberty that have no van-accessible parking spots, for example, and even some of the city’s public buildings don’t have accessible features like electric doors.
“There is a general lack of accessibility for people with disabilities,” Coberly told the council. “I wanted to lift it up as something I’ve been engaged in and working on, and I want to be able to make a difference. I’m very concerned about the city I live in.”
Coberly has always worked to make a difference. In 1973, she organized a 32-county regional workshop for people with disabilities, which led her to be chosen as a delegate to the first White House conference on handicapped individuals (1977).
Coberly has served on the National Disability Board, and frequently does in-service training for companies and organizations about accessibility issues, giving them ideas about basic things that can be helpful but aren’t cost prohibitive.
For example, most people are unaware of how important the design of a handicapped parking space can be.
All lifts and ramps open on the right side or the rear of wheelchair-equipped vehicles, not to the left. “Even contractors don’t understand that,” she said. “Sometime they put the slashes on left side, and I have to back into the space.”
And even when spots are marked van accessible, other cars with regular handicapped placards take those first. “Those wide slash marks in handicapped spots are there for a reason– usually to lower a lift– and yet people park in it, thinking there is a lot of extra space. At least once a week I have to go back into a building and have someone come out and drive my car out so I can lower the lift and get back into my van,” she said.
Other times, it’s a matter of educating ambulatory drivers. Several trips to local businesses have resulted in her reminding people handicapped spots are not for everyone. Even a recent trip to the North Liberty Community Library ended in an unpleasant confrontation when a city employee parked in the slash-marked lift area because employees have been told they can use it for loading and unloading vehicles, Coberly said.
“That doesn’t make sense to me,” Coberly said. “I’ve never heard that they can use it as a loading dock in preference of handicapped parking. Plus, there is no signage, so in the winter when the pavement is covered with snow or ice, people can’t see the markings.”
Doors are terrible, she added, as most businesses don’t have any automatic doors.
“Some may have a sign that says if you need help to let someone know,” she said. “But you can’t do that until you’re in the building, and so you’re stuck sitting outside, waiting for someone to come along.”
And bathrooms, though designated as handicapped accessible, largely aren’t. The zero-entry showers popular at many hotels now are only useable for people who are not in motorized wheelchairs, or who can stand for at least some period of time, since the pull-down seats are always at the back of the shower and the faucets are at the front. And privacy in public restrooms is rare.
“In most locations, you cannot drive into a handicapped stall in a wheelchair and still close the door,” she said. “It happens a lot.”
Coberly said whenever she encounters such conditions, she attempts to inform the business owners or managers of the problem and offers suggestions for improvement.
“I usually get, ‘I’ll have to talk to my higher-ups.’ Or they just say I’m sorry,” said Coberly, and because she is just one person, most don’t worry about losing her patronage. Worse, she said, is when people get prickly with her.
“Defensiveness is what I get all the time. If someone would just say, ‘you’re right, it’s wrong, and we need to work on that,’ instead of ‘it’s an old building, we don’t have the money, we can’t fix it.’”
Coberly believes a better approach would be for contractors and cities and businesses to consult someone before construction begins– someone like herself, who must maneuver through public life on wheels. It’s a perspective she believes important for a growing, developing city like North Liberty.
“Theology professor Nancy Eiesland once told me that we can put out all the pamphlets we want, but it takes people who have lived it to explain it and express it,” said Coberly. “We need more of us on these planning committees.”
But physical barriers are often easier to remedy than mind-sets, Coberly said.
“Until we can change attitudes, it will be difficult to make other changes,” she said. “All people have to want the change, not just people with disabilities.”
When Coberly visited the North Liberty City Council last fall, she heard the standard response she dreads hearing.
“Our new construction meets current standards, but some of the older construction does not meet accessibility needs,” acknowledged mayor Tom Salm.
The city should be getting some additional information about those areas in need of accessibility improvements, though. The Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County (MPOJC) currently has interns working on a transition plan, required of state and local governments with over 50 employees, which would include Johnson County and the cities of Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty.
“They are required to perform self-evaluations of their current facilities related to the accessibility requirements of the ADA,” said MPOJC’s Kris Ackerson. “The agencies are then required to develop a transition plan to address any deficiencies.”
Transition plans include the five components (tasked entity):
“MPO staff does not have the expertise to assess ADA accessibility within buildings, park facilities, programs, and public information outlets (for example, websites and publications),” Ackerson said, “but we will continue to inventory barriers within the right-of-way.” Those area would include things like pedestrian access routes to municipal facilities, bus stops and shelters, and curb ramps.
When inventories in the communities are complete, MPO staff will develop a public input strategy to inform the prioritization and scheduling of improvements, Ackerson said.
Such measures are great, Coberly said, but it’s not simply a matter of complying with the minimum ADA standards in city codes. She would like to see people with disabilities work together to make awareness the norm, and not the anomaly.
“We need the organized effort of a task force, where there is some continuity of information, where we could talk about some of these problems and what we can do. A lot of those problems are just born of ignorance, and education is key.
“I’ve worked on disability awareness ever since the 70s,” Coberly said. “I keep thinking, some day I’m not going to have to do that anymore, but everywhere I’ve lived, I still do.”