Center for Independent Living

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.  

Rick Diamond

At Disability Network/Lakeshore, 1993 is regarded as a very special year.

That’s not because Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd president, because Apartheid ended with a new democratic government in South Africa, or because the first graphical user interface browser (Mosaic) made it easy to navigate the World Wide Web.

The year 1993 is a bright light in DNL’s history because that’s when the organization hired Rick Diamond, director of employment services.

“Ruth Stegeman moved in with the furniture at the organization from its inception for 19 years,” Diamond said. “And, I guess one could say that I moved in with the artwork. And, now it’s been 21 years.”

Diamond is the organization’s most venerable employee. Stegeman retired in 2011.

Originally the organization was known as Lakeshore Center for Independent Living, which began as a program of the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC).

A grant from the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration allowed the organization to grow to provide a range of services to more than 1,200 people with a range of disabilities in Ottawa and Allegan counties annually.

Diamond is the chief liaison between Michigan Rehabilitation Services, which contracts with Disability Network/Lakeshore to provide unemployed people with disabilities job skills training and job search coaching.

“Our focus goes beyond independent living,” Diamond said. “We try to address every issue that’s a barrier to someone getting and keeping a job.”

More often than not, the barrier is reliable transportation. That’s why DNL’s leadership in getting voters to approve the Macatawa Area Express transit millage in 2006 was monumental. It provided funding which expanded local bus service for all people.

Most employers are willing to teach “hard” skills – the tasks necessary to perform the work. Few, Diamond said, are willing to teach “soft” skills like teamwork, etiquette, punctuality, an optimistic attitude, and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Providing training that helps people with “more abilities than disabilities” land long-term jobs resonates with Diamond’s deepest values about the giftedness of people and helping humankind.

Diamond, who grew up in Marshall and Battle Creek, holds a Master’s of Divinity degree, but decided he wasn’t cut out for the ministry.

Some would say he has found a vocation that allows him to minister to the needs of people in very practical ways.

Attitudes about the organization, like attitudes about people with disabilities, have evolved during Diamond’s two decades on the job.

When he started, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was quite new. Area employers were anxious and fearful they would be cited for noncompliance, Diamond said. Business and industry needed skilled people to fill jobs, but had a hard time believing that appropriately accommodated workers with disabilities could be productive.

It gradually got easier to place workers with visible and invisible disabilities – until the economy “tanked” about 2007, Diamond said.

Following the “last hired, first fired” practice, a lot of people with disabilities became unemployed again.

“We’ve come out of that and employers now feel they have jobs they can’t fill with qualified people,” Diamond said. “They are looking to us again for a pool of potential employees.”

Most of the people Disability Network/Lakeshore is working with in employment services have acquired or age-related disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to continue a previous career.

Many have held long-term jobs, but have a condition or circumstances which require them to “adjust to a new normal, including different employment,” Diamond said.

Diamond calls disabilities “the ultimate equal opportunity employer.” It can strike anybody at any time.

“All people dream of having a nice place, a loving relationship and family,” Diamond said. “They want to live their lives as fully as possible. And most of those who aren’t working desperately want to find and keep a job.”

The ADA hasn’t achieved equal opportunity for people with disabilities, but Diamond says things get just a little bit better every year.

He is proud to be part of an organization that’s part of the solution.

“I’m blessed to have a job that I love and doesn’t feel like work,” Diamond said. “I’m continuing to learn and grow.”