Get Ready to Party! It's a Milestone Birthday!

The No 1 way to celebrate a 25th birthday is, weather permitting, a picnic, according to party planner

Disability Network/Lakeshore’s Board of Directors loves that idea, too.

That’s why they’re inviting community members to Windmill Island Gardens in Holland to celebrate the organization’s 25th birthday, and quarter-century of advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 1.

Food at “Cheers & Beers to 25 Years” is free, but registration by May 25 required so the appropriate number of grills are fired up to feed guests. There will be a cash bar serving New Holland brews.  Register online at our event page, or by phoning the organization at (616) 396-5326.

Music will be performed by rockabilly star Delilah DeWylde.  Guests are free to explore the 36-acre park. Kids aged 12 years and under can ride the island’s antique carousel with hand-carved and hand-painted horses for free. There will also be face painting and balloon animals for the children.

“We’ve really designed this to be a fun, family-friendly event,” said Lucia Rios, DNL’s community access specialist. “We’ll have tables set up, but there also will be plenty of room to spread out a picnic blanket to eat, or set up their lawn chairs to just sit and enjoy the music.”

The organization was formed in 1992 as the Center for Independent Living.  Its purpose, then and now, is to provide help for residents of Ottawa and Allegan counties who have disabilities, whether or not those disabilities are apparent. 

The agency now annually serves about 1,800 people, whose challenges range from job skills training and housing needs, to benefits planning and transitioning from rehabilitative care to living independently. The organization also plays a leadership role in identifying and addressing accessibility issues in the community.

The name was changed to Disability Network/Lakeshore a decade ago to suggest the broadening scope of its work and the importance of collaboration.

“By connecting people with disabilities to resources and opportunities, we are building communities where everyone can participate, contribute and belong,” said Todd Whiteman, only DNL’s second executive director. “Our dream is to create engaged citizens and livable communities.”

According to the organization’s first executive director, Ruth Stegeman -- who left in 2011 after serving 19 years -- Disability Network’s crowning community-wide accomplishment came in 2006, when it spearheaded voter approval of the Macatawa Area Express transit millage. This funded expansion of public transportation. It improved employment opportunities and enhanced the quality of life for many local people with disabilities.

Winter can feel like warfare, especially for those with mobility challenges!

Winter can feel like warfare, especially for those who use wheelchairs, walkers, canes and crutches.

A Michigan winter storm can quickly render a smooth and clear sidewalk completely inaccessible for people who need assistive mobility devices.

Wheeling a chair or pushing a walker through as few as four inches of snow escalates the amount of physical exertion required. Travelers who are not accustomed to the strain are at greater risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Moisture puddles and freezes in low-lying areas of sidewalks, and at the spot where the curb ramp meets the road surface. Usually the ice can be seen and avoided. Sometimes it’s stealthy “black ice,“ multiplying the risk of a slip-and-fall injury.

And then there are the oh-so-annoying times when snow has been cleared from sidewalks and streets, but an insurmountable ridge of crusty snow and ice has built up in the curb cut after the plow went through. 

For those with a mobility disability, traversing that ridge is like climbing Mt. Everest.

Driving an automobile to run errands in winter isn’t the answer. 

Sure, being in a vehicle reduces an individual’s exposure to snow, ice and extreme cold. Too often road crews in urban areas plow snow into accessible parking spaces until it can be loaded into dump trucks and hauled away.

Winter warfare, indeed.

Here are a few tips for running errands, even when winter weather compounds your mobility challenges:

1.    Call ahead.  Tell the business you’re coming and you use a wheelchair. If the snow isn’t cleared when you call, chances are that it will be by the time you arrive. 
2.    Is there a technology hack? If using public transportation, see if there’s a website or mobile app you can use to check conditions before you leave your residence. Occasionally snow may be too deep for buses or vans to extend a wheelchair ramp or operate a lift.
3.    Ask for assistance. If the sidewalk or curb cut is impassable, you are within your rights to ask the nearest business or residential property owner to remove it. Cities are only responsible for plowing streets. Generally, property owners have 24 hours after a snowfall to clear sidewalks. If sidewalks remain impassable 48 hours after a notice to clear walkways has been issued, the municipality can hire a contractor to remove the snow and send the bill to the property owner.
4.    “Click and collect” shopping.  Some retailers, including the Meijer store in Jenison, allow shoppers to place orders and pay online, then pickup their order curbside. A personal shopper fills the order, keeps perishable foods cool or frozen, and then loads the order into the customer’s vehicle at an appointed time. With notice, stores that offer in-store pickup of online orders may also agree to bring the order out to your waiting car. No parking, wheeling through a snowy parking lot, or in-store shopping necessary!
5.    Mail-order shopping. Order online from Target, Amazon, Wal-Mart and most other retailers and have the order delivered directly to your home in a couple of days. You don’t have to go out at all! While perishable groceries are only available this way in some major metropolitan markets, this is an easy way to replenish your pantry with many staples.

Do you have any tips or tricks?  We'd love to hear yours, comment below!

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,, 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.