Smile Politely

The Disability Resource Expo helps people with disabilities have a better quality of life

The Disability Resource Expo is returning to C-U on October 22nd at Marketplace Mall after a pandemic hiatus to continue its mission: “To provide full access to information and resources from a wide variety of agencies and organizations, to promote a better quality of life for people with disabilities in Champaign County and East Central Illinois.” The expo returns with new leadership at the helm, Allison and Dylan Boot.

The Boots have been involved with the expo for a number of years, and they are disability advocates outside of the expo. Allison has a Masters in Communication from the University of Dayton, and is a published author of books featuring kids with disabilities. Dylan is a U of I alum with a Masters in Rehab Psychology, who has focused his career on helping others with disabilities become more independent.

I spoke with the Boots recently about the upcoming expo. Dylan’s disability affects his speech, so Allison interpreted and served as a mouthpiece for both of them.

Smile Politely: How did the two of you end up taking over leadership of the expo?

Allison Boot: We are good friends with the former coordinators, Barb Bressner and Jim Mayer. They’ve both been involved with the expo for many years. I think Barb Bressner has been involved since it started in 2007. So when the two of them decided that they would like to retire, they sat down and talked about who on the planning committee might be the best fit to fill their shoes. They came to us to ask if we would feel comfortable taking over. Of course they talked to the mental health board first — the Mental Health and Disability Boards in Champaign County put the expo on — and got permission from the board members to talk to us, and we decided that we didn’t want to see the expo go, so we’d do our best to take over.

SP: Can you talk about the process of pulling this scale of an event together? When does the planning process start?

Boot: I’m not going to lie, it’s more work than we even realized, even though we’ve been with the expo for a number of years, especially because this is the first one after a three year hiatus due to Covid. A few of the vendors that we’ve used to put things together either aren’t in business anymore or are operating in a lesser capacity, so that kind of threw us for a loop. We even had to reschedule the event this year because the University scheduled homecoming for the same weekend.

We have to coordinate with vendors, call local businesses to ask for sponsorship and donations, there’s a lot of PR stuff, as well as the resource book. Each year we put together a resource book with descriptions and contact info for all of the vendors that are going to be at the expo. Putting together that book is a big job.

Normally we start in January, to plan the event for October. This year the timeline didn’t work out quite the way that we hoped, so we’re a bit crunched, but we’re going to pull it out and we’re very excited.

SP: What can people expect to find when they come through the doors?

Boot: This year because of Covid we are operating on a slightly smaller scale. We have 64 exhibitors that will be there this year, but there will still be a good variety of resources: educational and recreational, self-help, legal, healthcare, and a section for kids and youth because we know how important that is. This year there will be a few more resources for children with autism than we’ve had previously, so we’re excited about that.

The mental health board also has an alliance that they put together called the Alliance for Inclusion and Respect, to help fight the stigma surrounding mental health and disabilities. Some artists with disabilities from that group will be at the expo with unique pieces of art.

We’ve also tried to stay very connected with the public health district to make sure that guidelines are followed. We are very strongly encouraging people to wear masks when they come to the event.

SP: I know that you are also an author, and that your writing is part of your advocacy. Can you share about the books you’ve written?

Boot: Sure! There will actually be a table with my books at the expo. I write young adult books featuring kids with disabilities to help bring about awareness and again, fight some of the stigma around disabilities, by educating kids in a fun way. I also think it’s important to give kids with disabilities heroes that look like them to look up to.

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The Disability Resource Expo is happening from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is free to attend and open to all. Marketplace Mall is an accessible building, and there will be additional wheelchair accessible parking spaces reserved for the event. Participants will have access to alternative formats for the resource book, such as USB drives or large print, if needed. They can also request materials in large print from exhibitors, though it may take a couple of weeks to receive those materials. There will be assistants on hand to help attendees as needed, as well as ASL and Spanish interpreters. You can find all the information about the expo on the website.

Top photo provided by Allison Boot.

Managing Editor

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