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Breaking barriers: a rewarding goal.

Byline: JEFF WRIGHT The Register-Guard

Scott Whetham walked to the lectern, accepted the plaque and said he felt like a coach basking in the glory of his players' exploits.

"It's like I just got lucky enough to coach the All-Stars," he said Tuesday. "Because that's who we're working with: a bunch of superstars."

For the past 11 years, Whetham has worked for Alternative Work Concepts, a low-profile nonprofit agency in Eugene that works behind the scenes to match severely disabled people with employers. Whetham's "superstars" are his clients.

"They are just so committed and dedicated," he said. "Their work ethic and their personalities are unbelievable."

Whetham and his employer are winners of this year's Barrier Awareness award, bestowed annually by the Eugene Human Rights Commission's Committee on Accessibility. It was presented in the wheelchair-accessible Council Chamber at City Hall before a crowd that included about 10 wheelchair users.

The award comes on the heels of Eugene's recent honor as one of the nation's 10 most accessible cities picked by the National Organization on Disability, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Whetham, who lives in Cottage Grove and works in Eugene, said he was reminded how lucky he is to live here after taking a recent business trip to Bend, where accessible buildings, sidewalk curb cuts and other disabled-friendly features were few.

"They have nothing," he said. "You have to call a cab or have someone take you if you want to go anywhere."

Whetham, 47, doesn't use a wheelchair but has little problem empathizing with his disabled clients: He has been legally blind since age 16.

But that didn't stop him from attending Lane Community College and the University of Oregon, where he majored in special education and therapeutic recreation. He and his wife, Debbie, have a son and 3-year-old grandson.

Whetham used to travel the country as the drummer in a band, but found his niche when he hooked up with Alternative Work Concepts. Playing music was fun, he said, but it was hard sometimes to get motivated as he bounced from town to town, gig to gig.

"But that's not the case with this job," he said. "There's not a day that I don't want to jump in there and get scratchin'."

Lately, Whetham has been working with the Lane Transit District on two projects: a "Transit Training" program that teaches people with severe disabilities how to ride the bus, and a "Transit Host" program where volunteers help disabled bus riders get from one bus to another at the district's downtown transfer station.

Terry Parker, LTD's accessibility services manager, nominated Whetham and his employer for this year's award. She said the transit district "had the idea but not the skills" to make the bus system understandable to severely disabled riders.

With Whetham's and others' help, "we've had incredibly positive results," she said.

As a project coordinator, Whetham also works with businesses. It's been extremely gratifying, he said, "to find some partners out there who are breaking down barriers and thinking outside the box" about what defines a reliable and dedicated employee.

Liz Fox, Alternative Work Concepts' executive director, said the agency currently serves about 30 people with disabilities and has worked with perhaps 75 employers in its 16-year history.

"This is not just a business or an agency - this is a family," she said in accepting the city's award. "It all comes from the heart."

Eugene Mayor Jim Torrey said the city can take pride in its accomplishments but mustn't rest on its laurels. He said the city has an international reputation - a Japanese TV crew plans to film a segment soon on Eugene's accessibility efforts - and narrowly missed beating out Venice, Fla., for top honors in the recent naming of top 10 accessible cities.

"The only thing we lacked was a drive-in church ... and I'm working on that," he said.

ACCESSIBLE CITIES

National Organization on Disability honors 10 communities with Accessible America awards:

Top city: Venice, Fla. (received $25,000 cash award)

Other finalists: Eugene; Portland; Berkeley, Calif.; Bloomington, Ill.; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; Irvine, Calif.; Minneapolis; Montgomery County, Md.

Eugene nomination: Cited for sidewalk curb cuts (more than 5,500); accessibility at City Hall, Hilyard Community Center and other city buildings; Spencer Butte Challenge Course; formation of Human Rights Commission's accessibility committee; Lane Transit District accessibility (more than 5,100 lift-assisted rides each month); efforts by Pearl Buck Center, Goodwill Industries, UO, Eugene School District, Lighthouse Temple, Temple Beth Israel, Center for Appropriate Transport, Housing and Community Services Agency, Mobility International USA and other groups to accommodate people with disabilities.

- National Organization on Disability, city of Eugene

BARRIER AWARENESS DAY

Previous winners: Lane Transit District, Marshall Peter, Alicia Hays, Wally Earle, Ted Stevens, Santa Clara Fred Meyer, Karen Swezey, Barbara Fields, Eugene Family YMCA, Eugene Mission Mothers and Children's Building, Susan Sygall, Mobility International USA, Mary Ann Curulla

CAPTION(S):

Scott Whetham won the city of Eugene's Barrier Awareness Award for his work at Alternative Work Concepts. Kevin Lively (right) works as a transit host downtown.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Award: A low-profile agency is honored for matching workers and employers.; General News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 8, 2002
Words:842
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