A Q&A with Robert Bilotta, Vice Chair of Worcester’s Disability Commission

WORCESTER – From transportation to education, and accessible housing to employment opportunities, Robert Bilotta and the Worcester Commission on Disability are on a mission to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in the city.

Since April 2017, Bilotta has worked as an Assistive Technology Regional Center Coordinator for Easter Seals – an organization providing services to children and adults with disabilities and/or special needs. The grand opening for the Worcester Easter Seals office is Friday, Oct. 13 on the sixth floor of the Denholm Building on Main St.

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Robert Bilotta with his service dog, Kilroy

In his position at Easter Seals, Bilotta runs workshops, purchases new equipment for the center, and coordinates outreach for the center.

Bilotta, 30, has lived in Worcester his entire life and is a graduate of North High school.

In 2015, Bilotta was elected to the City of Worcester’s Commission on Disability. Last month, he was voted Vice Chair of the Commission.

Over the past year, the Commission on Disability has hosted Wheelchair Tours to give people a taste of what life is like maneuvering around Worcester in a wheelchair. On Wednesday, Oct. 4, the Commission will host a mobility stroll in Webster Square at 5 PM.

Bilotta said, “Because of those strolls, the DPW [Worcester Department of Public Works] is beginning to understand some of the issues we deal with. It’s a slow moving wheel, but I think for us to be able to be out there and meeting people, we are getting the word out and helping the larger community understand what is going on for us in Worcester.”

“If we can be more present in the community and help educate people, and if we can make more noise about certain things, that’s going to go a long way for us,” Bilotta added.

According to Bilotta, there will be a major effort next year to host a week-long program in Worcester filled with events, speakers and community discussions aimed at educating the city’s residents on the American Disabilities Act.

“I think bringing our issues into the mainstream will help the community understand our issues and what it is we deal with,” Bilotta said.

On Thursday, Sept. 21, ThisWeekinWorcester had the opportunity to speak with Bilotta as he shared how he came to be on the Commission on Disability, what he thinks can be done to improve relations with the city and its disabled residents, and the initiatives the Commission and the city are taking together to provide a better quality of life for the people in Worcester living with disabilities.

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How did you get involved with the Commission on Disability? Were you recruited or did you apply on your own?

RB: When I worked Center for Living and Working, one of my co-workers was on the Commission and he said ‘Hey you should get involved. They’re looking for people. They have some spots and you should go for it.’ So I started that in May of 2015.

Every year we nominate for Chair and Vice Chair. I nominated Joe Prochilo as Chair this year. He’s done a really great job for us. He’s started a lot of initiatives to improve sidewalk access and safety. He’s really ignited a lot of energy and a sense of passion on the Commission.

What initiatives are the Commission and the City of Worcester working on to improve quality of life for people with disabilities?

RB: Right now, one of our goals for the year is to look into getting more information about accessible housing in the city. There’s a real crunch for accessible housing. The wait list for public housing is one to four years. You’re on there for a long time. Even if you want to rent at market rate, there aren’t many accessible apartments in the city at all.

Even for subsidized housing, there aren’t many options available around the city.

What steps will the Commission take to communicate to those with disabilities where they can find appropriate housing?

RB: We recently met with the City Manager [Edward M. Augustus, Jr.] to see where we could reach out to the proper people in the city to start pushing these issues. Right now, it’s figuring out who we approach with what. We are going to be having meetings with the Economic Development Office to let them know that appropriate housing is an issue and to see what we can do together try to implement different policies to fix the housing issue.

We are hoping that these meetings could lead to change in policies, zoning, and regulations. There could be a lot of opportunities for owners of triple deckers in the city to convert their first floors to be more accessible.

The bottom line is we want to live in the community and be a part of it.

Beyond housing, what’s the single most difficult issue people with disabilities face in Worcester right now?

RB: There are several, actually. It’s housing, transportation and employment. There are 110 registered taxis in the city — only two are accessible. There are no accessible liveries or ride-sharing apps like Uber or Lyft. The WRTA [Worcester Regional Transit Authority] has their paratransit, but you have to call the day before. There’s nothing on demand for people with disabilities.

When it comes to addressing those issues, what is the role of the Commission?

RB: The role of the commission is to advise the city and provide input from our community on certain issues and also to bring issues to the table and push to fix different things like housing and transportation, improving access to businesses, sidewalk improvements, and fixing crosswalks.

In recent studies, Worcester has been named the least “walkable” big city in Massachusetts, and last year one report named Worcester the worst city in America for people with disabilities.

On a scale of one to 10 [1 being the worst, 10 being the best] how would you grade Worcester’s accessibility for people with disabilities?

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RB: For someone like me, I’m in a powerchair and it’s gotten better and some sidewalks have improved. That being said, there are still some very bad sidewalks and some really hairy intersections. Overall, I would give it a six out of 10.

For people that push in their wheelchairs, it’s probably a four. For people with walkers, probably a two. For someone that’s visually impaired, I don’t know how they even get from point A to point B in the city.  It’s probably a one out of 10.

Besides hosting the mobility strolls, is there anything else that the Commission and the City are planning on doing to work cooperatively on?

RB: We’re working on ways to develop relationships and connect with business owners in the city. We’re asking for better access to businesses, restaurants, etc. Some of the owners may think it’s impossible, but it’s not.

A lot of people still don’t know what we need and go through because they don’t see us out all the time. And why don’t they see us out? Because it’s hard and it’s challenging. So the Disability Commission is starting to take a lot of these issues on and see what we can do from there.

The Commission on Disability meets once a month. Please visit the City’s boards and commissions page for more information on their October meeting and read the Commission’s brochure. For additional information, visit the City’s Office on Disabilities page.

 

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