For most of us, Independence Day passed on the fourth, with leftover potato salad and annoying fireworks enduring a few days beyond that. For Murray’s Carrissa Johnson, however, July 4 is one of many days in the year focused on independence. Her quest is not seasonal but lifelong.
Carrissa leads Murray’s Center for Accessible Living (CAL), an organization that provides essential support and services to people with disabilities and their caregivers. With a blend of skills, commitment, networking, and creativity, she goes about her work with good insight and good humor.
A disability resource center, CAL is governed by people with disabilities — like Carrissa Johnson — focused on promoting equal access and equal and independent living status for all people with disabilities.
Carrissa started as an intern at CAL-Murray in 2005. She was still going to school but wanted to get involved in an organization that champions independent living for people with disabilities. “I like to give back,” is the way she puts it.
The work she and her organization do takes a peer-to-peer approach, helping individuals with disabilities set their own goals. The range of desired goals is extensive, including things like finding a job or a safe and accessible place to live. Some of the assistance can be as seemingly simple as teaching people how to cook, use the computer, or even put on makeup.
“We’re not experts, we just walk with them,” Carrissa says.
A recent and ongoing program is Accessible Murray, the brainchild of Carrissa Johnson. She trains college student volunteers to administer accessibility surveys for local businesses and organizations. The idea is to determine where the facility is currently meeting the needs and mandates of the Americans with disabilities (ADA) Act. The program is a stepping stone to solving accessibility problems by identifying readily achievable goals and cultivating a sense of partnership that clears the way to improved accessibility.
Participating organizations receive a plaque of recognition to show they are committed to accessibility progress. Rather than emphasizing what’s wrong, Accessible Murray accentuates the positive.
Another program where Carrissa’s leadership has been crucial is the construction of an accessible playground in Murray-Calloway County Park. She admits she might not have thought of the idea at all until she had her son. Then, as a young parent, she began to recognize that a parent with a disability could not swing a child on the swings, or join them at the sliding board or other recreational favorites of active children. Likewise, children with disabilities were sidelined without safe and accessible equipment.
With grant money, and then a generous contribution by a local family, now all children can play and parents can get to the equipment too. A wheelchair swing and bucket-style swing are now part of the equipment. There are accessible monkey bars too, and some of the picnic tables are designed so a person in a wheelchair can fit comfortable and join the rest of the gang for fun and food.
“We’re looking at accessible basketball hoops and want to develop a trail,” Carrissa says. And as she remembers her own childhood and having to sit on the sidewalk watching her friends play in the park, she is proud of the progress on the path to accessibility, and looks forward to more.
As she reflects on her own life so far, Carrissa admits that she wasn’t always open about disabilities and their impact. As a teen, she wanted to be “normal,” and exhausted herself with physical therapy and working out.
“I dreamed of walking across the stage to get my diploma,” she said, adding that it was an unrealistic goal.
College made the difference, however. “I became proud of who I am. Once you decide who you are, you can be proud. It has been a process of growth.”