November 26, 2021

Race is in spirit of Fran Pizzola

Cortland Standard file photo

The late Fran Pizzola, founder of Access to Independence, is being honored by the Universal 5 + 1/2 K this fall. Proceeds will go toward achieving universal access in the community.

People with disabilities face challenges every day, Rachel Anderson said.

Every. Single. Day.

A person who uses a wheelchair might see a trek to Price Chopper like a 5K run. Someone with a balance issue might look at a flight of stairs like a mountain climb. A blind person might think of a trip to a diner like a spring track practice.

So why would people with disabilities enter a 5K or half-K race?

“The fact that we can and we do overcome all those challenges, every single day, that’s why we do this — because we can,” said Anderson, accessibility modification coordinator at Access to Independence on North Main Street in Cortland.

The agency, which advocates for people with disabilities, is organizing a recreational event that encompasses all people, those with disabilities and those without.

“When I was a teenager, I broke my spine in three places,” said Anderson, of McGraw. “I was in a wheelchair. I went through physical therapy. I got to a point where I could walk again. I didn’t want to walk. I wanted to run.”

Now Anderson has 16 full and half-marathons under her belt. These days she has a neurological disorder where she sometimes experiences loss of vision and balance. Still, she’s going for 26 competitive running medals.

Running support:
Visit Access to Independence’s Facebook page to see 3 to 5 minute videos on training tips Fridays for the Universal 5K + Half K.

“I have bad days and good days,” she said. “Every day that I can run, I am running for people that can’t run.”

Access’ Universal 5 + 1/2 K will take place this fall at Suggett Park in Cortland. There is a choice for 3.1 miles or three-tenths of a mile. People can roll, run or walk.

The event was previously scheduled for April 25. Access officials monitoring the coronavirus pandemic decided to postpone. It will take place in the fall — more time to train.

That aside, people are encouraged to register as early as possible.

There is no race day registration. Registration costs $25.

“I need to be able to make accommodations for people,” Anderson said.

Proceeds from the event, which will honor the late Fran Pizzola, Access’ founder, will go toward universal design projects in the community.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Rachel Anderson, left, accessibility modification coordinator, and Aaron Baier, executive director of Access to Independence, outside their agency March 11, 2020.


Two options are available on the registration form where people can note their disability.

Say a disability is blindness. They can check, “I am blind and will come with a guide,” or “I am blind and need to be matched with a guide,” Anderson said.

“Some people who are blind just want simple directions. Some people that are blind want to be tethered to a guide. It’s up to the individual,” Anderson said.

“This process that we are doing is more informal than the big races. In Boston, in the Paralympics, there are specifications for guides,” she said. “Because we are small, it’s going to be more informal.”

“Obviously if we have a person with a disability, register as soon as possible so I can arrange an accommodation.”

Anderson is certified by the Roadrunners Club of America as a race director, trained to plan and direct an event.

“There are 16 certified race directors in New York State and I’m the only certified race director in Cortland County,” she said.

Anderson has also made three- to five-minute videos for people to view the course, and tips on running and preparing.

She makes a new video and posts it every Friday to Access to Independence’s Facebook page.

Cortland Standard file photo

Founder of Access

Pizzola, 57, died last year.

“Fran loved the outdoors,” said Aaron Baier, executive director of Access to Independence.

“She’s obviously a proponent of universal design,” he said, which allows easy access in homes, businesses and streets.

What is Pizzola, who used a wheelchair, about?

Freedom, Baier said.

A race, a road race in particular, is about freedom. People could be walking, rolling or running.

“You are showing your freedom,” Baier said.

He remembers his first 5K, “Ramp it Up” by Cortland United Methodist Church to fund wheelchair ramps. “Fran was involved. They had a 5K, a 1K. Fran participated. She loved the outdoors. She wanted to support the cause.”

Beginnings of Access

Access was a grassroots advocacy organization in 1986 called the Cortland County Accessibility Committee under CAPCO, when the group secured state funding and Pizzola became the volunteer coordinator.

Later, Cortland County Access was formed in 1997 under the umbrella of Finger Lakes Independence Center in Ithaca. The next year, Access to Independence of Cortland County became a non profit, which she headed.

It has many roles today. But it advocated for curb cuts on city sidewalks, electric doors in stores and government buildings, accessible parking, and sound signals at intersections to tell people when it was safe to walk.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Projects need funds

Anderson said accessibility modifications are all grant-funded for individuals who need inclusive tools in their home. But the funding has its limits.

“There’s no grant money to make the community as a whole, accessible,” Anderson said.

When Pizzola died, people started donating in her memory; it was set aside for projects to make the community more useable.

An example: There are two new wheelchair charging stations at the County Office Building that Access installed, with the help of Seven Valleys Health Coalition and the county.

“Downtown Cortland is great. People want to do things and go places. It’s great we have them in the County Office Building,” Anderson said.

“I want to put them in the park and other places. People want to go to the Central New York Living History Center. They want to see their kids in the park. We don’t have money like that on a regular basis.”

“It’s not just charging stations. It might be a small ramp for a local non-profit,” Baier said.

Suggett Park as race site

Access chose Suggett Park for its first course.

“Suggett Park has an accessible playground and we wanted a family-friendly park,” Anderson said. She approached the YMCA asking if she could use their around-the-block course idea. “I didn’t poach it,” she said.

As far as accessibility, the course is: not that great.

“We want to highlight ways that Cortland is accessible and ways it is not accessible,” she said. “Sidewalks are great here, not here. There are curb cuts here, not here.”

Access plans to repeat the race next year with a different course.

It’s for freedom, fun, and to make a point, Anderson said:

“There’s not a three-mile stretch in the city that is fully accessible.”

Cortland Standard file photo


What you need to know

What: Universal 5K + Half K
Who: For everyone
When: Postponed until this fall
Where: Suggett Park, Cortland
Why: Fund access projects in community
Title sponsor: Plan First Technologies. Other sponsors have signed on. Others are sought.
Cost: $25