Evanston company promotes inclusion for the disabled

Alexandria Johnson

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As a college student at the University of Kansas, Evanston native Patrick Hughes first developed an interest in helping the disabled. Now, Hughes is running his own Evanston-based company devoted to improving the population’s inclusion in communities throughout the nation.

Inclusion Solutions, LLC, provides assistance to the disabled with the primary goals of improving accessibility at gas stations, polling places, building entrances and drive-thrus.

Hughes originally founded a nonprofit called Natural Ties which worked to encourage interactions between the community and people with disabilities. He left 13 years ago to start Inclusion Solutions, which offers practical options to help businesses comply with federal requirements for the disabled, mandated in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“Even though we’re 12 years old, I still feel like there’s a lot of work to be done,” Hughes said. “I’m always looking for that company that is trying to better understand the disability community, not from a defensive posture, but how we (can) better make our places successful and welcoming to people.”

In 1991, Hughes met an Evanston woman through Natural Ties named Sandra. He said she drives her wheelchair with her mouth, is mostly non-verbal and could not access basic places in Evanston.

“I went to lunch one day with Sandra and my whole world shifted,” Hughes said.

Hughes has worked on addressing common problems in the community that impact those with disabilities. He has created products such as the Big Bell, a button that alerts businesses someone needs assistance entering a building, and Order Assist, to help the deaf and those with hearing difficulties order alternatively at drive-thrus.

“It’s in our name, Inclusion Solutions, that it’s these little tools that help people,” Hughes said.

Eric Singer, owner of The Lucky Platter restaurant, 514 Main St., has worked with Hughes for more than 15 years. The restaurant offers a Big Bell and a portable ramp to provide accessibility for disabled customers.

“It allows us to participate with the community,” Singer said. “It’s allowed us to have wider availability to a wider group of people without forcing a small business into a financial problem that would not be easily solved for us.”

The Over the Rainbow Association of Evanston provides living and employment opportunities for individuals with physical disabilities. Chairman Leo Kirwan said products like the Big Bell help individuals at stores around the city as well as in their homes.

“A lot of those individuals have used Inclusion Solutions’ products to make their lives a whole lot easier,” Kirwan said.

Kirwan, a quadriplegic, said Hughes’s product, Fuel Call, is marketed nationwide to help those with disabilities get gas for their vehicles.

“I wish that was everywhere because I think it’s such a simple fix,” Kirwan said. “He’s a great innovator and he’s doing great work as far as I’m concerned.”

Inclusion Solutions’s main focus is making 159,000 gas stations in the United States have a clear plan for the 1.5 million drivers with disabilities to know how and when they will get their gas pumped, Hughes said.

He said Inclusion Solutions has developed a website and an app, fuelcall.net, that provides a mapping system so drivers will know where they can get gas in their car.

“For me, our big vision is mapping and creating a clear plan at 159,000 gas stations,” Hughes said.

Hughes also offers a product, Ballot Call, to assist with polling place accessibility. The 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore provided the impetus for this project because many disabled Americans struggled to cast their vote, he said.

“Anybody who was disenfranchised from the voting process sort of said, ‘It’s our turn,’ and the disabled community finally said, ‘We’ve had enough,'” Hughes said.

Hughes said people used absentee ballots and went to city hall as an option for voting, which election officials used as an excuse for access.

“The truth is it’s different than anybody else,” Hughes said.

Hughes said University President Morton Schapiro’s house is an example of a building that emphasizes accessibility.

“When I look at the president of Northwestern’s house, he gets a major A+ from me,” Hughes said. “If you look at the entrance to the house, it’s beautiful and from an accessibility standpoint, there’s no differentiation from anyone. It’s a beautiful mindset to have.”

A chapter of Hughes’s first organization, Natural Ties, still meets at NU on the first Tuesday of every month. Between 10 and 20 Evanston-area adults with disabilities spend time during sessions with a few NU students involved with program.

“It’s pretty simple but very rewarding and enjoyable,” Weinberg senior Jordan Gorrell said. “All the adults are so excited to see you and hang out with you, chat and play games.”

One of Hughes’s recent ventures is a video blog he launched called Pepsi with Brigid, in which he and his mother discuss inclusion on a weekly basis.

alexandriajohnson2015@u.northwestern.edu

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