Inclusive, accessible fitness opportunities you’ll enjoy

I am pleased to introduce today’s guest blogger, Laura O’Reilly, the Assistant Vice President of Health and Wellness at Easter Seals New Jersey.

Make safe and effective exercise a year-round resolution

by Laura O’Reilly, R.N.

Finita from the Be Well! program

Finita from the Be Well! program

As we resolve to make 2015 the year we finally stick to an exercise program, remember that the key to getting fit is staying with your exercise program all year round. Regardless of age and ability, regular exercise helps to improve health, prevent weight gain and increase strength and endurance. Once you get going, it feels so good. You just have to get started.

Participants of Easter Seals New Jersey’s Adult Day and Residential programs attend regular structured exercise classes with our staff of health and fitness professionals. They enjoy the class routine, which has become a part of their lifestyle, and they participate in physical fitness assessments to monitor their progress. Finita (pictured) is one of our participants –- she attends classes twice a week and says exercising makes her feel confident.

Watch Finita on our video below. You’ll also see how the program works, and how life-changing an inclusive wellness program can be. Inclusive in all ways: you can voice which exercises you like best. Find what you like and you’re more apt to stick with it. That’s why our exercise program was created by our team together with our program participants. They told us what they liked, how they felt, and we developed the program based on their needs.

As members of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability (NCHPAD) Inclusive Health Coalition, we have had the opportunity to share Be Well & Thrive exercise classes in New Jersey in Essex and Passaic Counties. We continue to expand our program outreach so that safe, inclusive exercise programs are accessible to many individuals in their communities. I encourage you, no matter your ability, to visit the NCHPAD website to learn about inclusive physical activity opportunities and to reach out to your local Easter Seals affiliate to ask about ways they can help you reach your fitness goals.

All instructors who teach the Be Well! & Thrive Exercise program have been trained and assessed by our team before being awarded a certificate to teach classes, and to ensure that our program would improve body mechanics to perform activities of daily living with greater independence (and address safety concerns related to exercise) our team of personal trainers consulted with occupational and physical therapists, a pharmacologist and a sports trainer. Subsequently, Be Well! & Thrive became the first accredited assessment based inclusive exercise instructor training program with The Institute for Credentialing Excellence in the U.S.

Our program participants proudly presented their class sequence last year at the New Jersey Commission on Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities annual conference. The demonstration was followed by a question and answer session and our proud presenters were not shy about sharing their enthusiasm for the program. They continue to take classes, and they look forward to the routine and camaraderie.

When selecting an exercise program in your community be sure that the instructors are qualified to teach people of all abilities, and check with your healthcare provider before starting any physical fitness routine. Safety first!

Related Blog:

See how one woman is getting fit with the help of Easter Seals Iowa in 2015!


2 priorities from White House Summit on Elementary and Secondary Education

Lou Stallard reading Suther Joshua from the Planet Yethican to Kidlink preschoolers.

Inclusive preschool

Stakes are really high for kids with disabilities (especially those under age 5) and the good news is that there are some significant happenings that could result in more opportunities for children with disabilities. The bad news? There are just as many happenings that could limit choices for these kids.

But let’s start with the great news first. Last month, I was invited to the White House Summit on Early Education. It’s always an honor to be invited to the White House, and to be able to participate and advance the specific needs and opportunities for kids with disabilities is really cool. I was the only disability advocate at this event, and the reason Easter Seals was invited is because of our deep roots and commitment to young children with disabilities and their families, as well as our strong partnerships with corporations like CVS Caremark and health and media channels like Parents Magazine.

Easter Seals has long argued that including kids with disabilities in early education programs increases the quality of these programs. If a program can help a child with a disability learn and grow, it can help a child with typical development learn and grow, too. That has certainly been my personal experience with my own daughter, now 15, who spent her early years in Easter Seals early education programs. Two very important priorities came out of the White House summit:

ESEA is the law that finances education services to low income and vulnerable children, and every state in the country uses these funds to meet its obligations to children.

Now, the not-so-great news. The debate in Congress is pretty polarizing on education policy, especially on policy for students who have disabilities. Last week, Senate leaders published a draft bill on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that does not include new options for early education. We will be working with Congress — both the House and Senate — to encourage them to elevate early education services in this bill.

One of the most compelling arguments from the White House Summit was about the economy. Research demonstrates that expanding early learning opportunities would provide benefits to society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent, about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.

Simply put, its penny-wise and pound foolish to not expand early education options. Knowing that the first 5 years of life lay the foundation for a child’s success, Easter Seals strongly supports any effort to increase quality early education offerings.


A teenager’s feelings about her brother with autism

Brother-with-autism-from-NPRLast weekend I switched on National Public Radio and happen to catch the “Blood Is Thicker than Water” episode on a show called Re: sound. The show featured stories of families wrestling with love and loyalty, and one story, Except Me, was put together by a teenager who has a little brother with autism. The show set it up like this:

Andrew Skillings is 11 now, but he was first diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, when he was just two. Andrew’s challenges impact the whole family, especially his older sister Marissa, who struggles to find normalcy in a life that revolves around her disabled little brother.

From early on, Marissa Skilling’s feelings about her younger brother vacillated between love and hate. In her recorded essay, she acknowledges that some days she wanted to hug him, and other days she wanted to strangle him. Except Me is a very honest — and sweet — piece of work. If you missed hearing it last weekend, you can still hear this award-winning essay online.


Visual art made accessible, part 2

Think a writer who is blind has nothing to learn from a visual artist? Think again!

I wrote earlier about an architect friend who found a way to make his art accessible to people like me, who are blind. Now I’m back with another friend in the visual arts whose art is accessible in another way.

That's Jennifer, undaunted by the rain.

That’s Jennifer, undaunted by the rain.

I met visual artist Jennifer Lanski during my writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center (VSC). Sharing meals with Jennifer and her fellow visual artists at VSC gave me a new appreciation for art and drawing, and I was all ears when Jennifer shared ideas for a new time/temperature series. That series opened as an online exhibition on New Year’s Day this year. It’s called 2014 in 2015 and I’ve been going to the site every day so far in 2015.

Let me try and explain. At the end of 2013, Jennifer decided to go outside and draw every single day in 2014 as an extension of her time/temperature series. Each and every day in 2014, Jennifer determined how long she’d be out there drawing by the temperature outside that day. If it was 22º Fahrenheit at the moment she began drawing, she’d be out there 22 minutes. On days it was 90º? She’d draw for an hour and a half. She couldn’t give me one single answer on how she decided to do this. Instead, she gave me many:

  • She wanted to explore her new neighborhood, having moved to Fairfax, Ohio, from California only 6 months earlier.
  • She wanted to be allowed the time and space to draw; to demand that from her family, herself, and the world.
  • She wanted to make herself be outside every day, despite her instinct to huddle inside through the long, cold, grey, winter months.
  • She wanted to challenge herself.
  • She wanted to see how this daily project would develop.
  • She wanted to see how she’d respond to the struggles that would inevitably come from taking on this project.
  • She was interested in what it means to be an artist in the world in the 21st century. So she wanted to put herself, as an artist, into the world to find out.

As 2014 was coming to a close, Jennifer says the question of how to show the work kept nagging at her. She’d been convinced by other artists that she needed to show every single drawing from the project, but she couldn’t figure out how. And where.

“One morning I woke up and suddenly had the solution,” she wrote me in an email. “I would have an online show, but instead of showing all the drawings at once, the show would change daily and run for the entire year of 2015.” So starting on January 1, a new drawing appears online each day, and the next day a new one comes up to replace the one from the day before. The drawing that appears each day is the one she drew exactly one year earlier.

Jennifer knew that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate her drawings. “But maybe there is something you could get out of these drawings, too,” she said, explaining that along with every day’s image she’d be printing a “transcript” of the small text that appears below each drawing. “You’ll discover the place, date, time, description of the weather, the temperature, my clothing, and then sensory and environmental information from the experience of drawing that day,” she said. I “met poet Evie Shockley at the Vermont Studio Center when I was there again in July, and she said my text was poetry, though I’m not sure I would go that far.”

To see Jennifer’s show in its entirety, you have to visit the website every day in 2015. I’ve been doing that so far this year, and reading her transcript is a neat parallel to what her experience was like every day last year…but I don’t have to go outside! I’ve made a resolution to visit every morning so I can start each day with Jennifer’s poetry — consider joining me to see/read about a new drawing (the image she drew that same day last year) every day. If you do, weigh in here from time to time to let me know what the drawings look like.


7 ways we’re supporting veterans and military families right now

Easter Seals Dixon Center logoSince our start in 2012 with the support of founding partner Prudential, Easter Seals Dixon Center and Easter Seals Military and Veterans Services work around-the-clock to assist veterans and military families with the solutions they need to live productive, successful lives in their communities.

Last year we worked with nearly 165,000 vets and military families. We’re looking to top that in 2015. Here are seven shining examples of how we are supporting veterans and military families right now.

1.    Caring for Caregivers

Through a contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs, partnerships with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the USO and a grant from Newman’s Own Foundation, we expect to train more than 15,000 in 2015 caregivers on important skills such as self-care, home safety, veteran personal care, and managing difficult behaviors.

We also post the videos and downloadable resources from our bimonthly webinar series for military caregivers on

2.    Hotline Help

vet-crisis-line-226x175-newFull-time staffers manage Community OneSourceSM, a dedicated toll-free number and email where veterans and military families can request benefits information, assistance basic financial, health/well-being and education services, and resources for everything from legal aid to housing to caregiving. Our staff connects these individuals to the right resources and follows up to ensure that viable options have been found. Need a hand? Call 866-423-4981 or email us at

3.    Influencing the Influencers

Our Washington, DC-based government relations team works to influence federal and state legislation affecting veterans and military families. The new 114th Congress convening this month includes 60 new members and leadership changes on key committees (Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, and Appropriations) that govern policies and funding for veterans and military families. Our team is on the Hill introducing ourselves to these influential individuals, advocating for community-based solutions and highlighting the needs of military families, veterans and the families of the fallen.

4.    Employing Vets to Promote Vets

Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow

Our third public service announcement (PSA) video, which uses light humor to challenge people’s perceptions of veterans and reinforce their positive employment attributes, will have a cast and crew comprised almost entirely of veterans who are building careers in entertainment, as did the first two PSAs in the series. This 3rd PSA will be directed by Jim Fabio, a former Air Force Combat Camera Officer, under the guidance of Hollywood director, producer and writer Judd Apatow. Production is scheduled for the first quarter of this year with a May release date.

5.    Supporting Female Veterans

We administer the Women Veterans Financial Assistance Project, made possible through a grant from Aetna. This program allows Easter Seals affiliates or other community organizations to refer a woman veteran, her spouse, caregiver or child to Easter Seals Dixon Center for financial assistance in case of an emergency. Food, housing, infant supplies and/or transportation are some of the covered areas.

6.     Affiliate Services Across the U.S.

Of our 73 Easter Seals affiliates and their 550 on-the-ground service sites across the nation, 15 have distinct programs for veterans and their families, while the remaining 58 include those touched by military service in their daily services. Two examples:

•    Camp Yellow Ribbon, operated by Easter Seals Southeast Wisconsin, gives military families a break with a week of free summer fun for kids ages 7-15 with parents who have been, are currently, or will be deployed.
•    Veterans Count, operated by Easter Seals New Hampshire, provides financial assistance and services to veterans, service members and their families to ensure their dignity, health and overall well-being.

7.    Putting Vets in Meaningful Careers

We work with everyone from the Teamsters to the Society for Human Resource Management to inform and influence credentialing and employment programs, as well as provide wrap-around services such as transportation and child care. Advice might include on-the-job training on military installations to educating HR professionals on ways to understand a military resume. Easter Seals affiliates have a stake in this effort, too:

•    Veterans Staffing Network, operated by Easter Seals DC | MD | VA, offers temp-to-perm and direct-hire solutions for veterans, National Guard, Reserves, wounded warriors, and their spouses.
•    WorkFirst, Easter Seals Southern California and Operation Vets THRIVE, Easter Seals TriState, provide employment services and referrals for veterans and families transitioning out of the military and integrating back into communities.


One easy way to fight obesity in people with disabilities

The well-being initiatives at Easter Seals Iowa earned them a Blue Zones worksite designation last year, and I’m pleased to introduce Easter Seals Iowa’s Wellness Coordinator Melanie Asbe as a guest blogger today to tell you about their wellness efforts.

Go, Mary-Kate, Go!

by Melanie Asbe

Treadmill-Iowa client-NCHPAD


Obesity rates for children and adults with disabilities are far higher than rates for children and adults without disabilities, according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With this statistic in mind, Easter Seals Iowa has made a commitment to make our organization a healthier place to work. We’ve made tangible changes to our worksite environment and have started programs to support the well-being of our clients and employees.

One example: we’ve piloted a Fitbit competition between staff and clients in one of our departments. The Fitbit is a wireless activity tracker that is worn on the wrist. During the day, it tracks steps, distance, and calories burned. At night, it tracks your sleep quality and wakes you silently in the morning.

Mary-Kate Dorrlacombe, an Easter Seals client who has a developmental delay, saved her money for half of the cost of a Fitbit and one of the departments at Easter Seals Iowa contributed the other half of the funds. In just two weeks of having the Fitbit, she lost three pounds. Mary-Kate sends staff weekly summaries of her total distance, steps, sleep, and calories burned, and she feels she’s come a long way since using Fitbit. In her words:

  • I find myself doing things I wouldn’t imagine I would’ve been doing five years ago.
  • I find myself eating healthier and trying new foods.
  • I find myself working out regularly and playing lots of sports.
  • I find myself going out of my way to use the steps instead of the elevator.

PlankMary Kate also says her Fitbit has given her more confidence in her decisions to be healthy. She was able to cut soda pop out of her diet completely and continues to lose weight since purchasing her Fitbit. Staff and fellow clients at Easter Seals Iowa are very proud of Mary Kate and can’t wait to see where this will take her in 2015. Happy (Fit) New Year!

Easter Seals works with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) to support accessible fitness facilities, activities and programs in local communities.


Visual art made accessible, part 1

I’ve written here before about people trying to make visual art accessible to those of us who can’t see. I know they have good intentions, but I think they try too hard. It’s called visual art for a reason: you need your eyes to take it in.

Every piece of art tells some sort of story, however, and when you think about it, the creation of every piece of art is a story in itself. Rather than jump through hoops to let people who are blind touch visual art or use our other senses to take it in, how about simply telling the story of how the work was created? People who are blind can appreciate a good story, and those with vision will benefit from learning the backstory as well.

This past month two visual artists I know sent me wonderful stories about their work. I’ll tell you about one of them today, and introduce you to the other one in my next blog post.

Steve Wierzbowski is an architect who lives in our apartment building in Chicago. When he’s not designing buildings, he enjoys bike-riding along Lake Michigan and stopping here and there to draw a sketch. This past year Steve teamed up with a couple other artists — one works in video, and the other is a musician — and the three of them collaborated on an entertaining video about Steve, his bicycle, and the creation of two drawings.

You can see and/or hear Steve tell the stories behind his sketches in the “Two Sketches” YouTube video below. Whether you can see or not, you’ll learn a lot from “Two Sketches,” I promise.


Welcome to Easter Seals’ new president and CEO, Randy Rutta

Randy Rutta talking to a little girl at an Eatser Seals center

Randy Rutta at an Easter Seals center

Have you heard? Easter Seals’ President and CEO Jim Williams has taken on a new role as President of the Easter Seals Foundation, and as of January 1, 2015, Randy Rutta is our new President and CEO.

Randy has worked for and represented Easter Seals for 33 years and was among the Easter Seals staff that helped draft the transportation aspects of the groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Before stepping into the role as President and CEO he was Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President for Public Affairs.

Randy’s career move also meant a physical move – he left our Washington, DC, office to work at Easter Seals headquarters here in Chicago. This morning our DC staff will join us via video conference as we gather to welcome Randy and start the new year.

Randy has worked with Jim Williams during his entire career at Easter Seals and says following Jim as president and chief executive officer feels very natural. “I have big shoes to fill and an awesome legacy and mission to advance,” he says. . “It’s very exciting.” What a coincidence: it’s very exciting for us, too. Welcome to Chicago, Randy Rutta. Cheers!


How can autism free you to be yourself?

Rosie King

Rosie King

In her TED Talk “How Autism Freed Me to Be Myself,” Rosie King provides an important perspective on her autism spectrum diagnosis. From the TED Talk website:

People are so afraid of variety that they try to fit everything into a tiny little box with a specific label, says 16-year-old Rosie King, who is bold, brash and autistic. She wants to know: Why is everyone so worried about being normal? She sounds a clarion call for every kid, parent, teacher and person to celebrate uniqueness. It’s a soaring testament to the potential of human diversity.

As a society, we are often most comfortable with stereotypes that allow us to “systemize” or make sense of the world. These stereotypes allow us to classify, organize and categorize people into neat little boxes, establishing expectations of what a person is and what they will become. All too often as we establish programming for any individual with a disability, our goal is to help them become “normal”…whatever that may mean.

Rosie King reminds us of the importance of creativity and non-conformity and of thinking outside the box. Her uniqueness has allowed her to have a refreshing and honest perspective of the world that has resulted in multiple creative outlets, including a book and lectures. Most important, it has allowed her to have a better understanding of her siblings – both are non-verbal and on the autism spectrum.

Several years ago, during a panel discussion of individuals on the autism spectrum, an audience member asked the group to name a key factor in their success. The overwhelming response from panelists was….acceptance.

That response continues to resonate with me and serves as an important reminder in the work I do. While I absolutely embrace the importance of good programming and ongoing supports, part of our efforts on behalf of individuals on the spectrum should also be in celebrating the strengths and unique qualities of each person and in interacting in a manner that demonstrates acceptance and appreciation of these differences.

Every person has something to contribute. Rosie King’s speech proves that to us.


Related Resources on

What’s it like to live with Autism Spectrum Disorder?


What’s it like to have Autism Spectrum Disorder as an adult? Aaron Likens shares with us in this blog post.


Drum roll! Our 10 favorite blog posts of 2014

laptop with Easter Seals logoIt’s been another great year here at the Easter Seals blog, and to celebrate, the Easter Seals blog team and I are sharing links to our ten favorite posts from 2014. Those of you who missed them the first time around can read them now, and those of you who liked them when they were originally published can link to them again. Cheers!

  1. Our social media intern MacKenzie Olsberg taught video game newbies like me what it means to be a “non-playable character” (NPC) in her post about Taimi, a character in Guild Wars 2 who has a noncurable degenerative disease. To Mackenzie and many others, she was a groundbreaking character, especially since people with disabilities are not often seen in video games. This was easily the most viewed Easter Seals blog post of the year.
  2. Easter Seals President and CEO Jim Williams wrote a post applauding our partner CVS Caremark for making the bold move to stop selling tobacco products. And our readers applauded right along with us.
  3. After Easter Seals took the Massachusetts Thrive mentorship program online, we posted a letter that Thrive’s program coordinator Sandy Ho wrote to her younger self. This mentorship program and its support resources for young women with disabilities are now available nationally – visit
  4. In November, we asked some of our staffers at Easter Seals Dixon Center, the military and veterans’ arm of Easter Seals, what Veterans Day means to them. Their answers made us proud, and we published them in a Veteran’s Day post.
  5. We also introduced a new blogger, our resident autism guru, Cathy Pratt, PhD. Her initial posts have been a hit and we’re excited to post more from her in 2015. Her latest post shares 16 ways to prepare your child with sensory issues for the holidays.
  6. Eileen Dombrowski’s post on Halloween costumes for kids with disabilities was a huge hit, as were the adorable pictures!
  7. Sara Heidenheimer, one of the veteran’s featured in our Veteran’s Day post, also wrote a Fourth of July guest post sharing her Fourth of July playlist – what fun!
  8. One of the many posts we published about intimacy during Valentine’s Day week was written by Katie Banister, a woman who lost feeling from her shoulders down as the result of an auto accident. The post was titled “But how?” and broke new ground for Easter Seals.
  9. In June 2014, Easter Seals headed to Capitol Hill to advocate for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and Easter Seals’ Sara Croft wrote a great recap of our Washington, D.C., visit, which included meeting with Senator Tom Harkin.
  10. Our frequent blogger and public relations manager, Rachel Talen, left Easter Seals to become a teacher. Her post that explains why she chose this new path is touching and inspiring. (We miss you, Rachel!)


What’s in store for 2015? Sign up to follow the Easter Seals blog and find out. Happy new year!