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.  

Problems At Home

Working at Disability Network/Lakeshore means helping people with disabilities find the answers they need to remain independent in the community.  That’s kind of a mouthful, but basically it’s just saying we want to connect people to the resources they need to stay at home rather than go into a nursing care facility.

One of the programs I work in is called NFT: Nursing Facility Transition. 

In the NFT Program, we work to help residents who are already in a nursing facility but could live in the community except for various barriers that keep them from going home.  One of the main barriers we deal with is housing…specifically, low income housing.

Yes, you might say, but aren’t there already apartments available for people who have a low income? 

The answer is yes, there are…but not nearly enough, and, not nearly inexpensive enough.  You see, many people with disabilities are unable to work.  They, after a long, exhausting fight, manage to get disability income or supplemental security income, and that does help.  Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

If you manage to qualify for supplemental security income (SSI), then you’ll get approximately $740/month to live on.  That’s for everything too: housing, telephone, groceries, transportation, etc.  Low income is a necessity in this instance, but keep in mind that you may sit on a waiting list for months or years waiting for an apartment to become available.  And in the meantime, what do you do?

There are some places out there that are inexpensive enough.  It takes a while to find them, but even then, they may not have the features needed by someone with a disability.   

What we need are more inexpensive apartments that are accessible to people with disabilities, and that allow the people living in them to have enough money to purchase groceries and pay their other expenses. 

I’m not sure what the answer to the problem is going to be.  Maybe more small economy apartments.  Maybe more apartments that are Government subsidized.  Maybe there are other possibilities that I don’t know about. 

What do you think?  What’s the answer to the need for increased housing for people with disabilities?  There has to be an answer out there somewhere.

- Chris Wistrom,