You've got the question; Information and Referral Services has the answer

Knowledge is power.

Bree Austin-Roberts loves seeing clients become more powerful.

Austin-Roberts has functioned as the information and referral specialist at Disability Network/Lakeshore since 2013.  She receives 150 to 300 phone calls for help per month from people with disabilities, or regarding people with disabilities.

Here’s the common thread: A person with a disability wants to continue moving forward in his or her life, but needs resources to overcome an obstacle. Austin-Roberts tells them what local resources are available and can help them apply.

“Our organization serves residents of Ottawa and Allegan counties of any age who have a disability that may be emotional, physical, cognitive, developmental, or a combination of things,” Austin-Roberts said. “You can see why questions that come in to Information and Referral span a broad range of issues.”

Generally, Austin-Roberts said calls could be classified into the following categories:

•    Housing
•    Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). 
•    Employment
•    Transportation
•    Education and training
•    Mental health services

Austin-Roberts said that when she became DNL’s information referral specialist four years ago, most questions were about Social Security benefits and finding employment.

In contrast, these days, almost 90 percent of calls are related to obtaining or keeping affordable, accessible housing, getting needed repairs, or replacing broken household appliances.

“Information and Referral is micro human services work,” said Austin-Roberts, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Saint Xavier University in Chicago, and is completing a master’s degree in social work at Grand Valley State University. “We often meet one-to-one with people to hear their needs, help them set goals, and track their progress toward achieving that goal.”

She describes Information and Referral as a “teach to fish” service. Her role is to point to potential community resources, and offer only as much guidance as the client needs.

Since most applications are now on line, how much hands-on help a client requires is often rooted in how computer savvy he or she is, Austin-Roberts said. 

“I email some people a link to a resource and they take it from there,” Austin-Roberts said. “But some people aren’t that comfortable with computers. They would rather make an appointment to come into my office where we can fill out forms together.”

Disability Network/Lakeshore’s own website, dnlakeshore.org, provides quick-access “buttons” to email or telephone to the organization’s Information and Referral service. The agency’s phone number is: (616) 396-5326.

Austin-Roberts says a lot of questions also come in via the 2-1-1 Helpline, social workers at medical facilities, area churches, or partner agencies like Community Mental Health or Michigan Rehabilitative Services.

“There have been times I’ve received calls from three different agencies regarding the same family,” Austin-Roberts said. “They all want to make sure the client gets the help they need.”

While there local resources available – and, seemingly, more help than she remembers in Chicago – Austin-Roberts said occasionally she can’t find the help a client needs.

“It’s really hard on me if I can’t find a resource for a person who is dealing with insufficient income and homelessness on top of the challenges created by a disability,” Austin-Roberts said. “I work very, very hard for those people.” 

Have you got a question?  Not sure where to start?  Call our office and ask for Bree.  She can direct you to the appropriate staff member or community resource.  
 

Making Our Voices Heard

On Tuesday, November 8, we will have the privilege of exercising our freedom as a nation by casting our votes for elected officials. And while things seem more divisive than any campaign in recent history, I think we can all agree that this year's election will be one of the most important of our lifetime. 

As a community of people with disabilities, we have a large role to play in shaping the outcome of this election and amplifying our voice. According to the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), roughly 34.6 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote in the 2016 election. In fact, that's more than the number of eligible African American and Latino voters. 

So imagine the kind of power and impact we could have as a community if we all got out and voted. But how many of us will actually do it? If we look at the 2012 election, the numbers don't look good. That year, only 56% of people with disabilities voted, compared to 62% of people without disabilities.

Why was that? And what is it now that keeps us from exercising our collective voice more fully? As it turns out, many things. On the practical side, there are obvious, direct barriers: lack of transportation, bad weather, inaccessible polling places and other factors make the physical act of voting difficult for many of us.

But there are other barriers that aren't so obvious. Many eligible voters with disabilities feel like their voice simply doesn't matter, not just because of the physical barriers, but also because of a sense that no one cares enough to get them to the polls, help them at the polls, or even help them register to vote in the first place. They feel deflated and defeated. Maybe that's how YOU feel.

The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way and there is, in fact, a lot we can do today to change things. For instance, those who have physical difficulty getting to the polls can request absentee ballot forms and vote that way. In fact, you can find those forms and instructions here

Additionally, people can get information about voter registration and accessible polling places directly from us. Contact Lucia Rios or Kristin Myers and they will help point you in the right direction. 

Clearly, there are plenty of resources that are readily available, and we are glad to be your resource. But let's think bigger. Let's not stop raising our voice after election day. Come back to this page after November 8 and post comments about your voting experience. How accessible was your polling place? What was missing? What barriers did you face? Who helped you and how did they help? 

Let's identify the barriers to voting so that together we can make change happen!

Ability Award 2015 - Deb Stanley

The 2015 Ability Award recipient has a vision of improving the lives of people with disabilities by seeing them fully integrated into our communities…. working, living, worshipping and celebrating, side by side with others in the community.

Knowing first-hand what it feels like to be the underdog, tonight’s recipient has spent most of her life protecting and defending the underdog.  Experiencing teasing and bullying and longing to fit in but not knowing how, this person could only imagine what people with disabilities must feel like as they watch from the outside.

When asked if there was a specific incident that motivated her to promote inclusion or a community without barriers, she talked of something that happened when she was in 7th grade. Upon seeing a room of children, sitting in wheelchairs and with other disabilities, she asked the teacher why these children could not be with the rest of the class. The teacher replied, “Because they have disabilities and cannot be with other children.” This did not make sense; they looked like nice children and she wanted to get to know them and be friends. She would never forget peering into that classroom window and wishing there was not a barrier between them.  She shared in her essay, “this specific incident shaped my life, although I did not realize it at the time.”

Tonight’s recipient has spent her life, teaching, advocating, and bridging the gaps in our community. Her passion for helping her students with disabilities goes far beyond the classroom. In fact, knowing how hard it was for her students to successfully find their way into the community, she brought the community to them. She started a Transitions Class and brought presenters from various agencies, careers and backgrounds to talk with the students in the classroom. Before the students graduated, 3 of the 9 in her classroom had employment.  Once the people from the community got to know her students, they were willing to hire the student.

In her essay she wrote, “I love stories of people like Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan who overcame tremendous challenges through pure grit and determination, and the people who help them achieve success.  I hope to become a part of someone else’s story of achieving goals beyond their wildest dreams.”

And that is exactly what she is doing…her career of teaching and influencing students over the years has transitioned to helping people achieve success and fulfill their dreams by connecting them to the community through meaningful employment, mentors and volunteering. She recently resigned her position from Grand Haven High School and started a non-profit called Transition Bridges.

Her goal with Transition Bridges is “to create a profile of our adults so that employers see the person they are hiring with a set of unique gifts and skills, instead of someone with special needs. People in our community need someone to be a community liaison---someone who will connect them with employment, resources, and who will be a consultant to businesses.”

“There is no blue print for this journey that I am on, just one person’s dream of answering her younger self’s question of why people with disabilities are not living, working, and participating in the same activities as those without disabilities. We all deserve the same opportunities to live, work, and experience life side by side. I have made it my life’s mission to do everything possible to make sure that happens.”

We are thrilled and honored to introduce this beautiful, humble, compassionate and genuine woman, Deb Stanley as the 2015 Ability Award Recipient! 

Deb, tonight we honor you as an individual who advocates for inclusive communities, where everyone can participate, contribute, and belong---regardless of ability.

On behalf of Disability Network/Lakeshore, we present you with the 2015 Ability Award.

 

 

Virtual "Access" Online

Lawmakers designed the ADA to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in five key areas:

  • Public accommodations
  • Employment
  • Government facilities and services
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation

It is in that first area – public accommodations – that the ADA was initially most evident.

Ramps, lifts, electronic door openers, and restrooms roomy enough for people who use wheelchairs are just a few of the accommodations the legislation required to boost the accessibility of public spaces.

Removing physical barriers helps people with mobility challenges be out and about.

Our world has become a more “virtual” in the last 25 years. People with disabilities need equal access to online communications to be in sync with the world.

Unfortunately, people – especially those with visual or fine motor disabilities - can bemoan the fact that there are no mandated “curb cuts” in the digital “cloud.”

The World Wide Web had not yet revolutionized communications when ADA became the law of the land.

In 1990, few people had email accounts. Online banking was unimaginable. Hand-held communication devices (i.e. mobile phones) were part of the Star Trek universe, but not daily lives of people with no commission in Starfleet Command.

That’s why recent legal challenges lodged under the public accommodations provision of the ADA hover over virtual spaces and services.

The highest profile cases involve Netflix, a popular video entertainment service. Plaintiffs claimed in two unrelated lawsuits in 2012 that Netflix’s online streaming library was in violation of the ADA because no video subtitles were provided.

Complexity of the issue was underscored by the fact that outcomes in two federal district courts were different, although the cases themselves were similar.

One court ruled that the phrase “a place of public accommodation” in the ADA applied only to places with a physical presence.

The other court interpreted the phrase more broadly to include websites, saying they operate like modern-day stores.

The latter interpretation sets an important precedent. Owners of websites that are not designed to be accessible may be sued for failing to take affirmative actions and violating the ADA.

Website accessibility becomes a greater concern every year because:

  • More communication and business is being conducted online.
  • Websites are becoming more sophisticated, graphics-laden and interactive and assistive technologies can’t instantaneously transfer all elements to an alternate format.
  • America is aging and the number of people living with chronic and age-related disabilities is growing.

The courts may have sent an ambiguous message, but Netflix itself is making strides toward greater accessibility.

Netflix has added closed captioning for much of its online streaming video library. It is also adding audio description - a narration track that describes what is happening on-screen – on its most popular original programming.

Let’s hope that the physical accommodations mandated by the ADA to increase accessibility are embraced as a template for removing virtual barriers that people with disabilities often encounter when using the Internet.

Access 25 Years Later ...

Dan Wedge said he grew up feeling sad for people like his grandmother who used a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes.

“There were so many things that she would have enjoyed that she didn’t get to do,” Wedge said. “Even going out to eat with her required a lot of planning because there were so few restaurants that a wheelchair user could get into.”

Wedge - now Allegan County’s executive director of services - says his experience as a person using a wheelchair has been much different, thanks largely to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Wedge lost use of his legs in 1987 when his Cadillac rolled on him as he tried to push it up a snowy embankment after sliding off an icy Mecosta County road.

After rehabilitation, he was able to return to his sales position with office equipment business owned by his family, but being able to access public places wasn’t something a person using a wheelchair could count on.

That began to change when Congress enacted the ADA three years later, in 1990.

“The ADA reinforces that people with disabilities have a right to equal access,” Wedge said. “Its focus really addresses the needs of everybody.”

Parents of young children appreciate curbed sidewalks and the option of a wider public restroom stall, Wedge said. Subtitles on TV shows and movies benefit the hearing as well as the hearing impaired.

The ADA-inspired hard-surface walkway over the beach to Lake Michigan is the most popular way to access the water among all visitors to Holland State Park, he said.

Near and dear to Wedge’s heart is the new “winding ramp” at West Side Park in Allegan County which allows visitors including people who use wheelchairs to gradually navigate the 80-foot drop from the bluff to the Lake Michigan shore. Two scenic rest decks are popular with people with and without disabilities alike.

And the list goes on.