New Disability Empowerment Center to Help Reclaim and Enhance Lives

Posted By Mike Padgett

April 8, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – His right pinkie is red and swollen. He injured it in a full-contact sport once called murderball, so the player in a business suit and motorized wheelchair extends his left hand to greet visitors.

Today, the game known for its aggressiveness is called wheelchair rugby. Weekend athlete and full-time Phoenix executive Phil Pangrazio, 48, has been playing the high-octane sport for nearly 20 years.

And like participants in any other contact sport, these adrenaline-pumped players regularly smash into each other, often falling sideways in their built-to-crash rugby wheelchairs.

“It’s demolition derby in wheelchairs,” says Pangrazio, who received a severe spinal cord injury in a car accident 30 years ago.

Pangrazio, in his day job, is executive director of Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, a Phoenix agency that promotes programs designed to help people with disabilities achieve or continue independent living.

His agency’s offices are in the new 62,000-square-foot Disability Empowerment Center of Arizona, 5025 E. Washington St., Phoenix.

The two-story DEC building housing ABIL and nine other agencies was dedicated Feb. 19. The facility consolidates under one roof several agencies that offer individuals with disabilities a variety of medical, employment and counseling programs, partnerships and services. About 19 percent of the U.S. population has some type of disability, according to 2005 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That is about 54.4 million U.S. residents. Of that total, 35 million have a severe disability.

Other agencies in the new DEC building are the Arizona Center for Disability Law; Raising Special Kids; the Arizona chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; Joni & Friends; the Arizona Statewide Independent Living Council; Arizona Autism United; Valley Center of the Deaf; PRN Medical Services Inc.; and the Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association.

In June, work is scheduled to start on the facility’s 45,000-square-foot Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center on the vacant lot next door. The design includes two basketball courts, a rock-climbing wall, a running track, lockers and an aquatics center with a lap pool, a therapy pool and a Jacuzzi.

The new DEC center includes a four-level parking structure linked by two pedestrian bridges to the office building. When the sports facility is completed, the new disability center will be a one-of-a-kind facility, Pangrazio says.

“There’s no place in the country that puts together the multi-tenant, nonprofit disability services organizations on the same site with a sports recreation fitness center,” he says. “This will be totally unique throughout the United States in that we’re putting all of this on the same campus.”

The new DEC building is an expanded and renovated version of a 1973 office building that was on the property. That structure was gutted to the steel frame, then modified and enlarged, says architect Ilan Baldinger of Baldinger Studio in Tempe.

Baldinger walked the property many times during his design of the building. His goal was getting a feel for the site, the view corridors, the path of the sun, the orientation of the building’s footprint, and the influence of the surrounding buildings. The contractor was Caliber Construction.

His design allows natural light and views to penetrate deep into the building, thanks to generous use of windows and office partitions that are made partly of glass. A courtyard in the center of the building offers a place where employees and visitors can relax.

“I think the beauty of the building is how these agencies use it, and how easy it is for them to use the building,” Baldinger says, walking through the new facility with Pangrazio.

High-tech audiovisual technology equipment was added to the building’s two conference rooms. One has space for about 140 attendees. The other is an executive-level meeting room for about 15 seated around a horseshoe-shaped table.

Hallways are decorated like photo galleries, showcasing the work of photographer Tom Olin. His images show dozens of disability activities and achievements across the nation in recent years.

One meeting room has an enhanced air filtration system for people sensitive to perfumes, colognes, soaps, and chemicals in construction materials, carpeting and furniture.

The building includes a ground floor lunchroom with two garage doors that can be opened to the outdoor plaza in the middle of the building. The building’s third floor is a large terrace on the roof.

Baldinger scattered whimsical design elements throughout the building. In the main conference room, portholes in the wall near the ceiling are the air conditioning ducts. The conference room’s ceiling is covered with undulating panels resembling ocean waves.

Overhead in the hallways are linear ceiling lights set at angles. An abstract chandelier made of tubular lights highlights the stairwell.

Throughout the tour of the new DEC building, Pangrazio protected his swollen finger. He injured it during national wheelchair rugby competition April 3-5 in Louisville, Ky. He is player/coach of the Arizona Outcasts, which finished sixth of eight teams in division two of the U.S. Quad Rugby Association. His team finished 14th nationally out of 46 teams in the United States.

Since he started playing the game in 1990, Pangrazio has attended many of the national tournaments. The game is played on a basketball court. The teams have four players. The goal is to carry the ball (which is a volleyball) up the court and across the goal line separated by two pylons that are eight meters apart. The 2005 documentary film, “Murderball,” shows that the sport is anything but mild.

But there is much more than the new DEC building or wheelchair rugby to Pangrazio who, despite his quadriplegia, takes life head on. A spinal cord injury he suffered 30 years ago in an auto accident left him without the use of his legs and partial use of his arms. He was 19.

On the wall behind Pangrazio’s desk is a photograph of him waterskiing on a customized ski, fitted with a special seat. The photo was taken on an Arizona lake a few years ago. A rope is tethered to the front of the ski. A friend in the water kept Pangrazio and the ski stable until the boat pulled him out of the water.

 “I wiped out a few times that day,” he says. “In fact after that day, I didn’t want to do it ever again. You could injure yourself doing that. I think I’m too chicken any more.”

Still, the photo of Pangrazio in action shows him wearing the grin of a lifetime. His goal is to put similar smiles on the faces of others with disabilities using the services offered by the agencies in the new DEC building.

“Being able to reclaim your life from a disability and get back on your feet, so to speak, is a very long process,” he says. “It doesn’t happen overnight. And this (the new building) is going to provide an environment where people with disabilities are going to be able to come and learn and grow and be able to do what otherwise happens by trial, error and frustration.”

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Apr 8th, 2009

One Comment to 'New Disability Empowerment Center to Help Reclaim and Enhance Lives'

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  1. Mike –thanks for this great story. I have had the pleasure of working with ABIL for several years. The idea for the DEC has been bantered about for many years — it is so great to see it finished.

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