Creating access for all

Nickole Cheron (’05) has improved Portland’s services, processes and culture through the lens of her personal experience. The ADA Title II Disability & Equity Manager at the City of Portland has been a wheelchair user all her life, and she’s leveraged this vantage point to make the city a better place for all.

“Disability doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anyone,” Cheron says. “Governments need to hire people who represent every shape, size and form of the community – that’s the only way to provide equity and practice good governance.”

Removing barriers

Cheron, who obtained her two master’s degrees at PSU in Public Administration and Conflict Resolution, started out in film school, decided to obtain an MBA, and even planned to work in international mediation at one point. But misguided government policies and lack of affordable disability services repeatedly uprooted her goals.

“I remember thinking, ‘Am I really going to spend the rest of my life living at home off of assistance?’” Cheron recalls. “It was then that I decided to go into government and change the system.”

At PSU, Cheron was a student ambassador and advisor to the student senate, and she obtained an internship with then-Mayor Vera Katz where Cheron wrote the white paper that created the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

Cheron’s first career position was as the City of Portland’s Disability Coordinator, and her proudest achievement was the creation of a disaster preparation training for people with disabilities along with the Additional Needs Registry, which is now embedded in public alerts for people with disabilities and non-English speakers.

In her current role, Cheron’s main focus is on policy. When Lyft and Uber came to Portland, Cheron helped guarantee that these companies provide 24-hour service for people with mobility devices. “We are the only city in the U.S. that mandates this service,” Cheron declares. ”And when BIKETOWN started, I worked with the Bureau of Transportation to ensure the availability of accessible alternatives like recumbent bikes, hand-cycles, and tandem cycles for people who are blind, because everyone should be able to ride along the waterfront and enjoy the city.”

Clear perspective

Cheron knows good policy is also about language and its impact on people’s viewpoints. When conversations about a Portland “Ban the Straw” campaign began, she rallied to change the campaign language to “Ditch the Disposables.” “Straws are an accommodation for many people who can’t lift a glass,” she explains. “We can’t create a situation where people with disabilities can’t access straws or where people question others about why they’re using straws.”

Now, Cheron’s pushing Universal Design concepts forward to create a built environment that accommodates all people regardless of their age, size or abilities.

Cheron’s efforts leave a lasting legacy on Portland, and as these programs start to be emulated across the country, she’ll change the nation. “The amount of practices I’ve been able to effect is amazing, and the only reason was because I could bring my personal perspective to the table,” she says.