What's the Ability Award?

When a person has a disability, talk around town about that person tends to center on the disability.

With its Ability Award, Disability Network/Lakeshore is changing the conversation.

“When you look at people in terms of the abilities they bring to the table, you find there is so much more to say,” said Michele Chaney, who chairs the DNL board. “There are people in our community who have overcome significant barriers to contribute. They deserve community-wide recognition.”

That’s why DNL created the Ability Award, to be awarded to one nominee annually at a dress-up event.

The award is intended to reflect the goals of DNLs founding director, Ruth Stegeman, whose passion to build an accessible community which embraces peoples of all abilities still guides the small, nonprofit agency today.

The tenacious leadership qualities of the nominees never ceases to astound Chaney. Most share a life-long passion for advocating for people with disabilities.

Past Ability Award nominees are:

·         2011 -- Dan Wedge, who as director of the Allegan County Transportation Department helped create the county’s public transportation system, which provides transportation for the disabled, seniors and others. Wege has used a wheelchair since he lost use of his legs in a car accident.

·         2012 – Louise Schumaker, who created the Disability Services Department at Hope College in 1987, the same year she graduated from the college and three years before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated the services. Schumaker has been advocating for people with disabilities on campus and in the Holland community ever since. Schumaker was born blind.

·         2013 -- Donna Bunce, executive director and founder of Compassionate Heart Ministry, an after-school drop-in center that provides young adults with mild to moderate cognitive impairments opportunities for recreation and socialization. Bunce has a son on the autism spectrum.

·         2014 -- Helen Brownson, who taught special education at Holland High School and later advocated for students with special needs as a district administrator. Two of Brownson’s four sons had disabilities. She and husband Bill wrote a book about their family’s experience titled “Billy & Dave: From Brokenness to Blessedness.” She continues to advocate for the disabled despite formidable physical challenges of her own.

A call for nominees who live or work in Ottawa or Allegan counties goes out to the community each summer. Criterion includes leadership, advocacy, engagement and empowerment.

A selection committee interviews nominees personally to verify information in the nominating letter. All nominees are recognized as “champions” during the Ability Award event.

The winner is presented with an etched crystal trophy.

In 2014, a scholarship to attend the nine-month training program Leadership Holland was announced in connection with the Ability Award. Participation will promote awareness of DNL and the goal of inclusiveness in the community, Chaney said.