How Nantucket native Tom Hopkins is making the island accessible for all.
Tom Hopkins wants to be able to get into every club and restaurant on Nantucket. No, Hopkins isn’t some ambitious social climber, but rather serves as the director of the Architectural Access Board for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where he oversees all new construction relative to the state’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Whether you’re a disabled veteran or you were born with a traditional disability or you were hurt at the Marathon bombing, [handicap] access is very important to people,” Hopkins says. “If you’re sort of blasé about it, people suffer. They don’t get their right to eat at a favorite restaurant or get a birth certificate from town hall, or they can’t get into the library.”
Born on Nantucket in 1954, Hopkins has firsthand experience with the challenges of navigating the island by wheelchair. “I had cancer as a kid,” he says. “I was very ill, had major surgeries, leg amputation, lost part of my lung, part of my skull. I was sick for a long time.” Doctors gave him six months to live. “I was treated at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and a lot of folks donated blood for me to survive.” Miraculously, Hopkins beat the odds, and today he has three grandchildren with two more on the way this month. “I live a blessed life,” he says.
Blessed, but also challenged. Hopkins’s pediatric cancer left him confined to a wheelchair, and for the past four and a half decades he has become intimately aware of the trials and tribulations of getting around town. The experience has made him uniquely qualified for his job as director of the Architectural Access Board, which he’s been doing for the last sixteen years. Overseeing approximately 360 variances a year, the focus of his position is quite simple: Make sure all newly renovated or constructed public places are accessible to everyone, which can mean particular challenges on Nantucket.
“It’s the history of Nantucket,” Hopkins says of these challenges. “It’s the architecture.” How, for example, can an architect take a historic building on Federal Street that is only accessed by a front set of stairs and make it wheelchair accessible while retaining its historic appearance? Or, how does an architect provide second-floor access in that same building with space limitations and serious cost challenges? “I think people need to push harder for access,” he says, “and a good architect can find ways to almost hide it so that it doesn’t bother the heck out of the historians.”
While not a focus of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Hopkins’s efforts also benefit young families with strollers who find navigating Nantucket’s streets a considerable challenge. Wheeling kids around downtown and into shops and restaurants is made dramatically easier with the same access improvements that were intended for wheelchairs.
Aiding Hopkins’s efforts on the island is Nantucket’s Commission on Disability. “You have a very strong disability commission here,” he says. “They know when to step on the gas and when to let up.” Beyond public buildings, the Commission on Disability has made the beach accessible through specially designed wheelchairs that can be reserved for free. “That to me is access,” he says. “My boys would push me down and dump me in the water with snorkel and fins.”
The results of Tom Hopkins’s efforts can been seen on recent projects including Proprietors on India Street, 21 Broad and 76 Main Street hotels, Nantucket Community Music Center, and numerous other projects. “I love the fact that we help people address their projects and make their dreams come true,” he says. But perhaps more so, Tom Hopkins’s greatest accomplishment is ensuring that even those rolling around the island in wheelchairs don’t miss a step in enjoying everything that Nantucket has to offer.