Tina Pedersen was a walker most of her life, until seven years ago during a 10-minute surgery she suffered a spinal stroke.
She said after that nothing about her changed other than the fact she had to learn to navigate from a wheelchair and that’s when she got a glimpse of what the disability, or disabled community deals with on a daily basis. It was then Pedersen, a four-time cancer survivor and three-time stroke survivor realized that access and acceptance were not guaranteed. She set out to do something about it.
In April 2019, RAMP (Real Access Motivates Progress) was born with a mission to help everyone with a disability thrive by helping businesses see it’s easy to accommodate those with disabilities and it doesn’t cost much to do so.
“I really believe my true advocacy started when I started RAMP so I could advocate for those who needed it, and to help them actually thrive. We aren’t fighting to stand out. We are fighting to fit in,” she said.
Two years after founding RAMP, Pedersen discovered the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, and its Self-Employment Business Incubator.
The Business Incubator, funded by the Governor’s Workforce Board and Department of Labor and Training’s “Back to Work RI Initiative”, supports partnerships between and among public, private, and nonprofit agencies that focus on serving populations with traditional barriers to employment.
Pedersen recognized the RIDDC as a natural partner. She enrolled in the incubator this year, from January through March, both to polish her business skills and develop relationships in the community. They just finished a few weeks ago.
“I tried the RIDDC classes to help tighten up some of the things I needed tightened up,” said Pedersen, who is RAMP’s president and CEO as well as its founder.
The classes were a big help, she said, because she learned elements of running a non-profit business that she hadn’t gotten formal training in before. She learned new marketing strategies, how to communicate your business message to the public through news and media.
The classes, taught by professionals in the field with self-directed support, focus on starting, owning, running and managing your own businesses. The courses covered what it means to be an entrepreneur, marketing, finances, and the all-important elevator pitch.
Some of the lessons, she said, focused on things she had direct experience with, so she was able to build on the information and contribute real-world experience to the other students.
“I was able to take the market strategies and show how they worked in the real world with the other participants,” Pedersen said.
That cooperative learning experience was profound, she said, proving a truth about members of groups often set apart from mainstream business communities.
“One big thing we all need to understand in this world is we’re all in this together,” Pedersen said. “We can all work together. We all bring something to the table.”
Pedersen invited Sue Babin, Special Project Coordinator at the RIDDC, to speak about the RIDDC business incubator on RAMP’s latest weekly Wednesday podcast.
“Marketing is obviously the biggest thing,” Babin said during the podcast, “You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t do well in getting the information out about that service or product, then nobody’s going to buy it and you’re not going to make any money.”
Pedersen said taking the classes also qualified her and RAMP for a $2,000 business grant, which she said will also be an enormous help furthering RAMP’s success.
A Part of the Community
“We just want to blend in with everyone. We want to do what everyone else does. People don’t believe people in wheelchairs or with disabilities want to do everyday normal things. I have children and grandchildren. I was still a cheerleader coach. Nothing stops you. You do what you want to do.”
Besides being RAMP’s founder, president and CEO, Pedersen is also the vice-chair of the governor’s commission on disability, as well as a member of Gov. McKee’s transition team and also sits on several subcommittees to advocate for those with disabilities.
She says the biggest thing RAMP does is help raise awareness with local businesses that they can become accessible. With little money, they can become accessible to those with disabilities and can increase their bottom line by accommodating them.
“We are the highest minority — 26 percent of people have a disability,” she says. “The ADA has been around for 31 years yet no one is holding anyone accountable. We have the only congressman in a wheelchair cutting ribbons on a business he can’t get into. That’s embarrassing.”
The last business she visited before the pandemic shut everything down was Free Play Bar Arcade in Providence. Working with RAMP, they made the whole bottom floor wheelchair accessible so those with disabilities can enjoy what the facility has to offer.
The pandemic was especially challenging for the organization. Pedersen said she did trainings for businesses to help guide delivery people on how to do a contact-free delivery for someone who is disabled. For example, Pederson said you can’t leave something on the porch of someone who is blind because they wouldn’t know how many there were. If you did the same for someone in a wheelchair how would they pick it up?
“There are so many other ways of getting around it, but nobody thought about that,” she said. “What works for some doesn’t work for all.”
The training was to help business owners ask politely if people needed a special accommodation with their delivery — whether they were blind, in a wheelchair or disabled. “It was about how to politely ask and how to overcome it,” she said. “If I ordered a pizza and the code word today is purple. They’d come, say the code word and I’d yell ‘OK’ and they’d come in and drop it on my table and leave. That way people are getting their deliveries and getting what they needed safely and properly while still social distancing.”
Working with business owners has been a big part of RAMP’s mission, and while the pandemic came in as the nonprofit moved into its second year, it still managed to make some headway before it became not as easy to visit businesses and show them how they can accommodate all their customers.
Pedersen says she would go into local businesses and show them how, with portable ramps that cost less than $200, they could accommodate her — and she could bring four friends with her.
“It’s about the knowledge we can bring to these businesses and show them they can become ADA compliant for far less money than they thought,” she said. “We did a roll-through of one of the oldest libraries in Providence and they said it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 to be accessible. We helped them do it for less than $1,000 and I can get through every room. They’re not completely compliant but I can get to every room and utilize the bathroom.
RAMP’s message is spread through word of mouth and Pedersen says it’s not about making anyone go broke. It’s about helping them be accessible.
“We are all about breaking barriers,” she said. “We don’t charge anyone for what we do. No one can say they can’t afford to learn about accessibility. I say ‘invite me down, let’s work on this together see if we can find a back door or another way.’ You can start the process and then work on other things.”
The Red Bag Initiative
While she can’t do roll-throughs right now due to COVID-19, Pedersen is still advocating and educating. RAMP’s latest initiative is the Red Bag Initiative. Back in 2019, Pedersen was a volunteer with the American Cancer Society and wanted to be sure if she had an issue that her medical information was with her and easily accessible to first responders. In her red bag, she carries all her medicines, information on contact people and more. Her co-workers know she has it and know if she has a medical emergency to make sure her red bag was with her. That was how the Red Bag Initiative was born.
RAMP’s Red Bag Initiative allows you to have your medical information close at hand and keep it private. Just let your friends, family and coworkers know your RAMP red bag is always with you and needs to be given to a medical team in case of an emergency.
Pedersen said the Red Bag Initiative quickly went viral. “It went crazy,” she said. “Then FEMA found out about it. They are now part of the Red Bag Initiative. It’s helped so many first responders. It literally saves lives.”
RAMP doesn’t make any money on the bags. The organization charges $3 per bag and then replenishes them with the proceeds.
Pedersen conducted two conference calls with 5,000 first responders across the country who she said all loved the idea and today she says EMTs across the country are all looking for a red bag. “Businesses could buy these and donate them where they wanted and then a business buys a 1,000 and they could also put their business card in there.”
RAMP is always looking for sponsors who want to buy a bunch of bags and hand them out. The organization is also looking into grants.
Want to Get Involved?
Because RAMP is a non-profit, volunteers are critical to its mission. Currently, RAMP is active in seven states across the country including Michigan, Kentucky, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and California. They are also currently working on adding Florida and Colorado.
Pedersen says she’s always looking for volunteers. If you want to make a difference, she says: just reach out!
This page is part of a series of sponsored content pieces for the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council.