Defining the construct of community development has been a challenge for the field. Definitions vary in focus, scope, and purpose. While acknowledging the lack of consensus, Bhattacharyya (2004) theorized that community development embodies the pursuit of solidarity and agency by adhering to the principles of self-help, felt needs and participation (p. 5). In general terms, solidarity is defined as a shared identity among a group of individuals, and agency addresses the capacity of individuals to take action within their world. Solidarity and agency come together in participatory social action research to build and then to sustain community (cf. Sarason, 1972, 1974). Grounded in the early participatory research of Whyte (1943, 1991) and action research of Lewin (1946), participatory social action research involves research participants as more active partners than is evident in traditional social science studies (Jason et al., 2004). By contributing to the research process and taking action to promote social change, community members develop solidarity with one another around a common cause. Participatory social action research contributes to community development by focusing on community concerns, drawing on and examining community processes, and effecting constructive community change.
These overarching principles are particularly relevant for the disability community, which has experienced a long history of community exclusion (Charlton, 1998). In response to this exclusion, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was passed to codify the civil rights of people with disabilities and thereby to remove attitudinal, policy, procedural, communication, and architectural barriers they experience. Specifically, the public accommodations provisions of the law (Title III) requires establishments (such as retail shops, hotels, restaurants, and movie theaters) to provide access to their entrances, goods and services, and public restrooms. The U.S. Department of Justice adopted the ADA Accessibility Guidelines to assist people to assure accessibility. In addition, an ADA Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal was created, and a federal network of Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (DBTACs) was established to inform business owners and builders about their responsibilities under the law.
Yet, more than a decade after the ADA enactment, many barriers to accessibility remain. Lack of adequate knowledge about the law is one reason for the lack of community change (Hernandez, Keys, & Balcazar, 2003); a related reason is the lack of strong enforcement procedures. Specifically, enforcement of Title III of the ADA is heavily dependent on private citizens initiating lawsuits and/or filing complaints with the Department of Justice. Such complaints are numerous and typically exceed the capacity of the Department of Justice to enforce the ADA. Thus, a proactive, educational approach that does not depend primarily on legal enforcement has promise for promoting the successful implementation of the ADA public accommodations provisions.
The purpose of this research project on participatory social action is to examine the usefulness of a proactive, educational approach to increase the accessibility of community settings. This participatory approach engaged disabled citizens in change efforts using two foci. First, in a one-day workshop, it aimed to provide detailed information about effective ways to enforce compliance with Title III of the ADA to a group of ethnic minority individuals with physical and visual disabilities. Second, it assessed to what extent these participants could create social change in their communities. Participants conducted accessibility surveys in establishments they selected from their own neighborhoods, provided face-to-face feedback to business owners and managers, and then conducted reassessments of these establishments to determine whether changes had been made. …