Disability Network/Lakeshore

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 purpletrail.com.

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.

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.



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.

Cheers for the Americans with Disabilities Act!

The Americans with Disabilities Act transformed a nation.

If ever a yearlong victory lap was in order, this is it.

The Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land on July 26, 1990. As the country celebrates the 25th anniversary of this monumental legislation, it’s fitting that we reflect on ways the ADA has enabled people with disabilities to participate more fully in the workforce and community life.

“I didn’t realize the ADA’s positive impact on my life until I entered college, 10 years after the ADA was signed,” said Lucia Rios, an accessibility specialist with the Disability Network/Lakeshore.

Lucia was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair or crutches to get around. Just 10 years old when the ADA became law, Lucia is among an estimated 55 million Americans with disabilities who enjoy greater opportunities for independence and engagement because of this quantum legislation.

“Because of the ADA,” Lucia said, “there was no question about attending a public and accessible university. When I joined the workforce four years later, I was hired by a company that made accommodations without hesitation.”

Having professional, full-time employment has made it possible for Lucia to provide for herself financially. She owns her own home and is active – really active -- in her community. In addition to her responsibilities at DNL, Lucia is a freelance writer and is currently finishing her first book.

Lucia said, that assured she could roll into higher education, employment, and an ascending career trajectory.

The ADA seeks to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in five key areas:

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

The ADA requires accommodations to assure accessibility. These accommodations have become so commonplace that people with disabilities and their allies sometimes forget the quantum difference that eliminating physical barriers has made.

Here’s a short list of changes:

  • Designated parking
  • Ramps into public buildings
  • Curb cuts
  • Handicap accessible restrooms
  • Accessible public transportation options
  • Designated seating for people in wheelchairs at sporting events and in entertainment venues
  • Fire alarms that can be seen as well as heard

The bill, introduced in Congress in 1988, garnered bipartisan support on humanitarian grounds, but there was fierce opposition on cost.

The argument was that ADA-mandated changes might push small businesses out of business.

But the movement for disability rights surged in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The public was recognizing the inherent fallacy of “separate but equal” facilities and services. There was a groundswell of acceptance that a more inclusive America would be a stronger America.

Advocacy from many quarters heightened public awareness, but one of the most passionate was Vice Chair of the National Council on Disability Justin Dart Jr., who traversed the nation in the 1980s to conduct public hearings to collect testimonies on disability-related discrimination.

The Disability Rights Movement found champions in the nation’s capitol among President George H.W. Bush and a cadre of lawmakers whose lives were personally impacted by disabilities.

Allies included Atty. General Richard Thornburg, whose son was left physically and mentally disabled as a result of an automobile accident, and California Rep. Tony Coelho, who had epilepsy. Advocates in the Senate included Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose brother was deaf; Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose son had a leg amputated, and Robert Dole of Kansas, who sustained lingering combat injuries during World War II.

To be sure, the ideals embodied in the ADA have not been fully realized. It remains a work in progress, yet the progress over the last 25 years is astounding.

In coming weeks, we’ll look at how the ADA has affected life for people with disabilities who live on the lakeshore in the five key areas. Add comments to this story to share your own “then-and-now” observations.

“I’m fortunate that my work allows me to take on an active role in helping eliminate physical and attitudinal barriers about people with disabilities,” Lucia Rios said. “I’ve met many individuals with disabilities who have kept jobs by asking for accommodations, accessed programs for transit or housing, and retained services for additional supports.

“The ADA enables people with disabilities to sustain independent living,” she added, “and contribute to their communities.“

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.”