"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"
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by Homer Page
Grand Junction sets at the fork of the Grand and Colorado rivers in the heart of the Colorado Mesa country. It is the Western Slope’s largest city, and the home of a thriving disability community. Grand Junction is surrounded by spectacular scenery. The Colorado National Monument is a geological wonderland. Its sheer vertical rock faces, deep canyons, and free standing spires tell the story of millions of years of water erosion on differentially hard rock. Its many western art galleries testify to its frontier heritage. Its active disability community proclaims the far-reaching influence of the disability rights movement.
On March 27, 2002, Grand Junction’s Center for Independence (CFI) hosted the Statewide Independent Living Council’s first advocacy training workshop. The CFI is the region’s independent living center. Executive Director, Pat Haskell, and her staff organized the workshop. The following day they hosted a SILC meeting. Over 70 persons attended the daylong advocacy workshop. “Advocacy is one of the keys to independence. Our Center is committed to a strong advocacy program,” said Haskell.
A Grand Junction City Council member, Harry Butler, and a County Commissioner candidate and long time leader in the Colorado General Assembly, Tillman Bishop, joined the workshop for lunch. They spoke about effective ways to work with elected officials. A lively discussion with the workshop attendees followed their remarks. Mr. Butler was asked if sign language interpreters were available for City Council meetings. Mr. Bishop was told about the preference among persons with disabilities for the use of people first language. Both Mr. Butler and Mr. Bishop stated their desire to work with the local disability community.
Workshop attendees were asked to join the SILC advocacy network. The network will join advocates from around the state in an effort to make system changes on behalf of persons with disabilities. The SILC will coordinate the network, provide information, and consult with local advocates. There will be a minimum of 100 advocates in the statewide network. Clusters of advocates will be formed in local communities across the state.
Over the following year, the SILC advocacy program will conduct nine training workshops throughout Colorado. The next workshop is scheduled in Craig on May 29. These workshops offer both training in advocacy and in community awareness about independent living programs.
Some clusters already exist. CFI, for example, sponsors a consumer advocacy group that takes on community issues. Currently, accessible parking is their top priority. Ms. Haskell asked that the SILC training address basic concepts of advocacy to make current and future efforts more successful. The training focused on communicating with elected officials, knowing the right person to contact with a problem, and building an advocacy network.
It was fitting that the Center for Independence sponsored the first advocacy workshop. CFI has a decade-long record of commitment to improving the lives of persons with disabilities in western Colorado. Ms. Haskell moved to Grand Junction in July of 2001 to assume the directorship of CFI. Prior to coming to Grand Junction, she worked in an independent living center in Logan, Utah. She started her work in the independent living movement at an entry level and over an eight-year period advanced to an upper level management position. During those years, she learned about the independent living movement from Helen Roth, a leader in the movement. Pat attributes much of her commitment to advocacy to the influence that Ms. Roth had upon her. “I have always lived my life independently, Pat said. “But I didn’t know that I was living the philosophy of the movement until I worked with Helen.” Ms. Haskell has three children and one grandchild. Her youngest son is in the Navy. He is stationed on a ship at sea. However she is able to communicate with him daily by email.
The Center for Independence is a cutting edge independent living center. Its programs provide services to persons with disabilities who range in age from one day to 102 years. CFI serves a 12-county area that stretches from the Utah border to Granby. The wide array of Center programs include training in adaptive technology, services to older individuals who are blind, support for families with young children who have disabilities, a transition program for older children and young adults, and a recreation program for all ages. Outreach to minority persons with disabilities and advocacy for everyone are among CFI’s highest priorities.
Technology programs are also offered. Consumers are taught computer skills that they can use to get or keep a job or conduct their personal business. There is also a low-tech dimension to the technology program. These resources are used primarily to assist older individuals who are blind to make the most of their remaining vision.
CFI is the fiscal agent for an early childhood program. It manages a Colorado Department of Education grant that funds direct services to families with young children with disabilities. Ms. Haskell says that CFI can purchase adaptive equipment or pay for transportation to Denver for medical treatment, or help in any number of other ways. A major focus of the program is education. Staff works with new parents to help them understand and accept their child's disability. “We know that the sooner the parents can be comfortable with their child, the better it is for the child with a disability,” she says.
Pat tells of a family who learned a few weeks before the birth of a child that she would have disabilities. CFI staff assisted the family to make necessary preparations. When the child was born, the disabilities proved to be less severe than had been feared. Nevertheless, because of the work of the CFI staff, the family was ready to welcome and love a disabled baby.
CFI offers transition services to youth who want to live independently. The transition program is experience-based, and emphasizes the development of problem solving skills, money management, self-advocacy, and inter-personal relations. Peer counseling is a vital part of the service. A board member who is a wheelchair user teaches sex education. Older consumers go on outings with the youth to model independent behavior.
“Positive Outward bound People,” POPs, is a recreation program offered by CFI. The transition program and the recreation program work closely together. A trip to go bowling can provide an opportunity to learn about community accessibility. A camping trip can be used to learn money management, planning, and food preparation. Center staff use the recreational activities to teach consumers to identify community based transportation resources. They also use the events to build consumer confidence. Since both youth and older persons are included in the recreational program, it provides the opportunity for positive role modeling. CFI offers the opportunity to learn in a fun environment.
Ms. Haskell says that she has challenged each of her board members to take on three system change projects. “They are very enthusiastic,” she says. Ms. Haskell believes that if the CFI board is involved in advocacy, it will set an appropriate tone for the entire agency.
The consumer group that works on advocating for change has chosen to begin with accessible parking. They are focusing initially on designating some parking spaces around the Center for accessible parking. The group plans to expand its work as it learns to be effective.
Haskell says, “I believe that the first priority of an independent living center is to work on system change. We can measure our effectiveness by our success in advocating on behalf of persons with disabilities. Everyone at the Center should be an advocate.”
CFI combines a strong commitment to advocacy with a creative array of services. The board and staff are providing a quality program, worthy of imitation. They know what it means to be an independent living center.
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copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corporation