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Sean Kirst: In a 'power chair' on Buffalo's Ferris wheel, a long ride to the top

Buffalo News - 9/11/2022

Sep. 10—BJ Stasio already knows what he will say. He is leading a panel Wednesday that will reflect on a Hilbert College screening of "Crip Camp," a documentary centered on some courageous and idealistic pioneers within an ongoing civil rights revolution for women and men with disabilities.

Stasio, a Buffalo-born champion of that movement, figures he will do what he always does. He will speak to the progress he has seen in the five decades since he was born with cerebral palsy, and how none of that motion would have happened unless someone pushed for it.

"Everything to me," he said, "is about an inclusion community."

Yet he will also address so much still undone right in front of us, omissions that can be all too obvious and too casually missed. For a high-profile example of that kind of change, Stasio points to a new landmark within the grain elevators and factories of Buffalo's waterfront skyline.

He might even invite his audience to ride with him someday in what he calls "my new office."

That office — and he is not kidding when he says this — is a car on the new "Buffal-O" Ferris wheel at Buffalo RiverWorks. Stasio, who turns 52 in a few weeks, had never taken a ride on any Ferris wheel until that one opened last spring.

He is part of the Wonder Church that meets at RiverWorks, and he remembers a pivotal conversation with Earl Ketry — owner and founder of that Ganson Street sports and entertainment operation — after they attended services a couple of years ago.

"He was mentioning the concepts of universal access, and I told him we were designing a Ferris wheel," Ketry said.

That new attraction, Ketry assured Stasio, would provide a car with plenty of space for anyone using a mobility device or "power chairs" — the terms Stasio much prefers to "wheelchair." Ketry said that promise was made both in keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to honor the larger spirit of an expanding RiverWorks.

The Ferris wheel opened last spring, surrounded by a rock-climbing wall and busy ziplines and other exterior attractions. Stasio, who has used a power chair for years, was one of the first people to ride it.

"You do not know how much this meant to me," he said.

Under ADA requirements, vendors setting up temporary amusement rides at fairs and carnivals are not obligated to make them accessible, according to Frank Cammarata, executive director of the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities. Only permanent rides apply under the law, which is part of why Stasio — in his entire life — had never experienced how it felt to make the sweeping loop on a Ferris wheel.

Once he finally did, he fell in love with it. Stasio works as a self-advocacy coordinator for the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). He is also an officer with the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State (SANYS) and co-founder of an organization, the Art of Advocacy, that offers training in exactly what it describes.

Much of his work can be done remotely. With the blessing of Ketry and Sean Green, a RiverWorks administrator, Stasio has spent this summer making many calls — including a recent one, he said, to OPWDD commissioner Kerri Neifeld — as his car dangles atop the Ferris wheel.

As for Ketry, he said "adaptive needs were always part of the plan" at RiverWorks. While it begins with the idea it is simply the right thing to do, Ketry said it is also fundamentally good business to create a recreational campus offering true inclusion for many people who have waited a long time for such attractions as that sky-high Ferris wheel view.

Ketry expressed gratitude toward Stasio, and said he is also inspired by a long friendship with Adam Page, a three-time gold medalist in sled hockey in the winter Paralympics. Page is a guy, as Ketry puts it, "whose life has not involved an ounce of easy."

They were introduced by Green shortly after RiverWorks opened. The place is often used by Page's foundation, Greater Buffalo Adaptive Sports, for such events as wheelchair lacrosse, and Page is particularly excited about a showdown in another sport, set for Oct. 1:

A wheelchair football team named for the Buffalo Bills will go up against a Cleveland team named for the Browns. Page, a wide receiver, has played for Buffalo for a couple of years, and he scored the first touchdown of his life last month on a 30-yard pattern against a squad from New Orleans during a Chicago tournament.

"It was awesome," Page said of that feeling. The game is two-hand touch, but involves plenty of blocking and contact. He has stepped away from sled hockey for two main reasons: His goal now is providing access to as many sports as possible for athletes with disabilities, and he is also a fierce competitor who simply loves new challenges.

To get a feel for his latest sport, Page invites you to that Oct. 1 game against the Browns.

Stasio is trying to pull all those ideas together for Wednesday's 6 p.m. discussion at Hilbert's Swan Auditorium, just before the showing of "Crip Camp." He will be joined on the panel by parent advocate Max Donatelli; Emyle Watkins, a disabled investigative journalist who leads WBFO's disabilities coverage; and Colleen Kumiega, Hilbert's chair of behavioral sciences.

There are plenty of urgent questions to discuss — most immediately the continuing need to create better opportunities for direct service providers, whose status as underpaid and underappreciated emerged as a statewide pandemic crisis. Stasio might also reflect on the opening of a new OPWDD satellite center on Broadway — a giant, long-awaited statement against the mindset of isolation and separation intertwined with the old developmental center in West Seneca.

What he does make is this guarantee: He will mention his "new office." Stasio has spent the summer inviting many old friends to join him on the Ferris wheel, including Gwen Squire — who lived at the developmental center as a child, then went on to earn a master's degree on the way to a long career in counseling.

A few weeks ago, I was joined at RiverWorks by SANYS regional coordinator Sophia Roberts and her 10-year-old daughter Aya on the day Stasio welcomed longtime friend Israel Cruz to the Ferris wheel. "Why is it important?" Roberts asked rhetorically. "Why is it important for anyone to have fun?"

Cruz — an outspoken advocate of the need to plow snow from heavily used sidewalks in Buffalo — explained how he has used a power chair for years. He said he was born with cerebral palsy, and he remembers being at amusement parks as a kid, where he would watch other children casually lining up by a Ferris wheel he could never ride.

So it was a threshold moment when a young worker named Cole Szczerbacki hit a switch, and — for the first time in Cruz's life — a Ferris wheel carried him toward the sky.

Once the ride finished, he asked to do it again, and then again. Finally, Cruz got off. He talked about how the sun had turned the surface of Lake Erie into a glittering expanse of burning silver, and how he saw the city skyline in a way he had never seen it — all of it setting off emotion he tried to capture on Facebook Live.

"You haven't lived until you've done the Ferris wheel," Cruz told his listeners, just before he offered an awestruck "Whoa!" as his car — after a lifetime's wait — finally brought him to a full stop at the peak.


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