Malden Disability Commission works to make city accessible to all 

A close up of an AAC board at a playground that has symbols such as a person looking, running, jumping, a thumbs up sign, and so forth.
AAC boards display images or symbols that children can point to and interact with to communicate. (Photo by Kim Brookes)

By Gandharvika Gopal

Thanks to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) boards, children with differing verbal abilities are better equipped to interact on Malden playgrounds. This tangible example of leveling the playing field is the result of a collaborative effort with the Malden Disability Commission. 

The disability commission works with the community and local government to ensure varying abilities are accommodated in Malden schools, infrastructure, and policy. While the commission has made a mark on the city with changes to local intersections, community centers, and playgrounds, residents may not know the extent of the group’s work.   

The Malden Disability Commission was originally part of the Human Rights Commission, but when the need for an individual focus on disability became apparent, the two were separated. The commission as it’s known today was established in December of 2018 after the City Council voted to accept provisions of a statewide legislation

The statute delineated terms for disability commissions in Massachusetts at the city level. Local commissions would be required to meet specific conditions and would be eligible for grant funding. Mayor Gary Christenson and other members of the city staff began outreach for community members interested in joining the Malden commission. 

“[They] were on the lookout for individuals who were active in the community, but also were members of the disabled community. And so that’s how the initial set was recruited,” said Nichole Mossalam, who served as the first chair of the disability commission. Mossalam is a local politician, advocate, and former director of the Malden Islamic Center, as well as one of the founding members of the Malden Disability Commission. 

Commissioners joined Mayor Christenson in celebrating Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week in 2023, which ran from May 7-11. In photo, from left: Ligia Noriega-Murphy (Malden superintendent),  Dr. Ellie Richards (Psychologist and Team Lead, School-Based Mental Health, Cambridge Health Alliance), Roberta Turri Vise (Deputy Chief Community Officer, Cambridge Health Alliance), Erin Craven (Director of School Counseling, Testing & Academic Support, Malden Public Schools), Mayor Gary Christenson, Marilyn Andrews (Chair, Malden Disabilities Commission), Ralph Long (commissioner) and Jennifer Spadafora (Vice Chair, Malden School Committee). (Photo courtesy of the Malden Disability Commission)

Mossalam lives with a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects the ligaments of her joints. She made an awareness post on her disability that reached the mayor, and he asked her to be one of the commission’s first members. 

Following the mayor’s outreach, the commissioners were able to define their mission, set goals, and pass their own bylaws. “Part of [what] the city was looking for was guidance to make the city more accessible to people of all differing abilities,” Mossalam said. “From there, the very first thing that we did was an ADA self evaluation.” 

The commission welcomed a firm of evaluators who assessed the city’s policies, infrastructure, and employment. The evaluators presented their findings with a report and an action plan that ranked changes from immediate to more long term. That evaluation led to the establishment of the commission’s subcommittees: schools, infrastructure, and policy. 

The three subcommittees have made changes across Malden over the past few years. Every public school now has AAC boards to assist nonverbal children in communicating with teachers and peers. The initiative was proposed to the commission by Imene Bouziane Saidi, a Malden community member and mother. 

A blue, purple, and yellow playground includes a slide, monkey bars, and other play structures. A square board covered with icons and symbols is positioned at the front of the playground.
One augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) board featured at the Early Childhood Learning Center playground. (Photo by Kim Brookes)

“I really wanted to bring at least one board to raise awareness and acceptance of other folks who may use communication differently than neurotypical folks,” Bouziane Saidi said. “I explained how it’s important… in terms of multimodal communicators, which my son happens to be one of them.” 

Bouziane Saidi brought the idea to the commission and was involved in every step of the project. “Talking to the disability commission really exemplified what collaboration and partnership is,” she said. “Not once did I hear, ‘No we can’t do that.’ They wanted me to be part of it, and they made me feel welcomed.”

Following Bouziane Saidi’s initial proposal, AAC boards were installed in every K-8 school in Malden, along with the local preschool. “It’s led to [children] being able to flourish in their friendships and their relationships,” Commissioner Mossalam said. “Their learning has gone up as well, because there’s less frustration, they’re able to communicate better.”

For public works and infrastructure, the commission ensured multiple intersections were redone to better accommodate varying abilities. Those modifications include curb cuts, auditory signals, and adjusted timing for intersections. The commission’s work is eligible for grant funding, which allows all of Malden’s infrastructure to benefit as long as the city is designed with accessibility in mind. 

A crosswalk meter attached to a metal pole features a button and different signs with coordinating instructions for crossing the intersection.
An updated crosswalk at the intersection of Pleasant St. and Highland Ave. features longer cross times and clearer signals. (Photo courtesy of the Malden Disability Commission)

“We were able to get quite a few improvements done over at the senior center,” Mossalam said, “because our commission put together a grant application and applied for it, and received those funds to help the city implement [those changes].” 

The commission’s subcommittee on policy recently implemented a plugin called AudioEye for the City of Malden website. “[It] makes the website more accessible for people of differing abilities,” Mossalam said, “whether you’re visually impaired, whether you have difficulty seeing color contrast, or may be susceptible to seizures through visual stimulus.” 

The committee also incorporated visual communication cards for police stops in the city. “People who are hard of hearing can go to the police station, and get these police stop cards,” Mossalam said. “Then they’re able to have it with them and communicate with an officer who’s pulling them over.” 

Malden isn’t the only city with an established disability commission, though Mossalam believes it may be one of the most active. Neighboring cities like Medford, Melrose, and Revere all have their own commissions. “I think we just got lucky that we have very motivated and talented individuals who have joined our commission, and it allows us to get a lot of things done,” Mossalam said. 

Mayor Christenson declared July as Disability Pride Month in 2023. Disability commissioners are pictured with other city officials: 1st row, from left: Amanda Belles (Vice Chair, seated), Maria Luise (Special assistant to Mayor and ADA Compliance Officer), Mayor Gary Christenson, Chukwuzie Exewuzie, Marilyn Andrews (Chair), Kate Higgins. 2nd row, from left: Ralph Long, Steve Winslow (City Council President), Carey McDonald (Councilor-at-Large), Sharyn Zeiberg (Ward 8 School Committee representative). (Photo courtesy of the Malden Disability Commission)

James Norris, a Malden resident and the founder and executive director of Handi Capable Fitness, agrees. “I think that there’s a long way to go, as with anything… but Malden is really, in my opinion, at the forefront,” Norris said. “It was an author, I believe, who said ‘To accomplish anything, first you have to win your town, win your country, and then win the world.’ I really feel that Malden has done an excellent job doing that.” 

While the Malden Disability Commission’s work is part of so many locals’ lives, it’s not always recognized. “It would be great for the community to be more aware of what we do,” Mossalam said. “We’ve definitely left our footprint at this point in time, but I don’t think our community realizes [everything] that the disability commission had a hand in.” 

The commission holds virtual meetings open to the public on the second Thursday of every month. Members have created flyers to distribute at community events, and are working to create wallet-size QR codes that will direct users to their website, which is currently being updated. While there isn’t always significant public engagement, commissioners hope for increased collaboration with community members. 

“Really, our capacity and ability increases by more community involvement,” Mossalam said. “It’s very critical that we get that input and be able to work together to make the community more accessible.”

About Gandharvika Gopal 2 Articles
Gandharvika (Dharvi) Gopal is a junior journalism student at Emerson College and a freelance journalist and writer in the Boston area. She is currently interning with Urban Media Arts as a contributing journalist for Neighborhood View.

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