Two local non-profits have launched a campaign called the Bridge Builder Project to encourage local businesses to provide what they’re calling “disability-aware service.”

Bridge Builder Project team members with John Kim, co-owner of Brothers K Coffee House in Evanston.

The Evanston-based Center for Independent Futures and Wilmette-based JJ’s List have received a grant from New Trier Township to run the program from now through March.

“The businesses we are working with have shown leadership in making disability-aware service a part of the experience for their customers,” said JJ Hanley, executive director of JJ’s List and one of the project’s designers. “By participating in the Bridge Builder Project, they pave the way in showing other local business how to increase their base of loyal customers by being welcoming and respectful of people with disabilities.”

Teams comprised of individuals with and without disabilities recently completed a training workshop, hosted by the North Shore Community Bank in Skokie, to prepare for the project.

They’ve since begun interacting directly with local business owners and managers to partner in promoting the benefits of disability-aware customer service.

Among the resources the teams share with businesses are

  • A Tips for Great Disability-Aware Service poster for the staff lunchroom
  • A window cling that identifies the business as “disability-aware”
  • Free membership in the online JJ’s List Disability Awareness Directory where people post reviews of the disability-aware service of local businesses.
  • A counter display encouraging customers to post reviews of the business’s disability-aware efforts on JJ’s List

“The goal is not just to drop off a packet of printed materials at a business,” said Debbie DePalma, a Bridge Builder Project team member. “The goal is for the team to develop a relationship with the business, and to serve as a long-term resource for them.”

Bridge Builder Project team members with disabilities are building valuable job-related skills through interaction and communication with the businesses. These include letter writing, phone calls, professional etiquette and organizational skills that strengthen their resumes and might lead to employment and independent living.

“When I know I will feel welcome and comfortable someplace, I’m going to spread the word about that place on,” said Jake Joehl, a client of CIF and a JJ’s List volunteer with a visual impairment. “It’s also my way of saying thanks and giving back to businesses that treat me with respect.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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