Justin Coppola Sr. is on a mission, and much of it has been accomplished.
Coppola, a longtime advocate for Andover's disabled community, has received the state's top award for his outstanding contributions that include making sure town buildings are accessible to the handicap.
Coppola, 72, is a 20-year member of Andover's Commission on Disability. He recently received the Thomas P. Hopkins Disability Access Award, equivalent to the Americans with Disabilities Act's Advocate Man of the Year for Massachusetts.
"Our commission is celebrating its 25th anniversary next year,'' said Coppola, whose son Justin Jr. has spina bifida and is limited to a wheelchair.
"During that time, we have advocated for people with disabilities, with the majority of our members having various disabilities, so we are in a unique position to understand what is important for the town to focus on for disability improvements," he said. "We’re lucky in Andover to have a Commission on Disability.''
Statewide, there are 192 communities with commissions on disability and 159 communities without a commission.
"We report to the town manager and that gives us system-wide visibility,'' Coppola said. "We are integrated into the town's processes and have developed great relationships. I am very fortunate that the town has been so receptive to our ideas.''
Coppola said while the award is a great honor to him, it also honors the town.
"With 192 cities/towns with CODs statewide with thousands of members, and all of the professionals in the state working who have made outstanding contributions to the disabled community, this indicates to me the serious commitment the town has to its citizens with disabilities," Coppola said.
He said improvements to help handicapped people in Andover have happened during his time on the local commission and are categorized in three ways — physical and involving attitude or collaboration.
Coppola said many physical barriers have been eliminated to help people with disabilities in Andover. He works closely with town staff to review all new municipal buildings, and there is a process for continuous improvements to existing municipal buildings.
"I think as important is the positive change in attitude that I’ve seen over the past 20 years,'' he said. "Some of this can be explained by the population getting older and understanding this personally or seeing disabilities in their friends.''
Coppola, a 32-year Andover resident, said the local Commission on Disability has a good relationship with The Massachusetts Office on Disability.
"They support and guide us,'' he said of the state group. "When I have tough questions, I go to them. It’s great to have resources you know you can count on, and it gives me great comfort to know that they are there.''