An Open Letter to the Presidential Candidates

Randy Rutta

Easterseals CEO Randy Rutta

Disability issues have taken center stage this election season — and it’s high time they did.

At Easterseals, we believe every American deserves to live with dignity and independence. That means we champion the issues that impact more than 56.7 million Americans living with disability, along with the estimated 62 million eligible voters in this year’s electorate who have a family member with a disability.

At this pivotal moment, we are compelled to amplify the voices of people with disabilities, and those impacted by disability, to make sure the issues that they care about most are heard — now, and long after the polls close.

With that in mind, we reached out to our clients and supporters to learn more about what they face — from access to affordable healthcare and early intervention services, to accessibility and economic well-being. Read More…

 

Taking on college and getting around campus when you can’t see it

Girl with backpackYou might remember Alicia Krage’s guest post last February about the joys and challenges of being blind and dating someone who is blind, too. Alicia lived at home while attending her local community college. She transferred to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb this semester, and her post today is about her decision to make that change.

by Alicia Krage

I got accepted to Northern Illinois University (NIU) in January, and my excitement was at
an ultimate high all summer long.

I struggled through the spring semester at my local community college. My courses at College of DuPage (COD) were difficult, and I was eager to be elsewhere. I lived at home while I was attending COD and felt ready now for more freedom and independence.

Northern Illinois University is located an hour away from my family. My boyfriend goes to NIU, and I have a lot of other friends who go there, too.

The knowledge that I’d get to see them every day and have face-to-face interactions with them instead of chatting online made me long for fall. I wanted to be surrounded by my closest friends.

However, contrary to the way that might sound, having a wonderful social life wasn’t the only thing that made me want to attend such a big school. What really attracted me was how well-known NIU’s Disability Resource Center is. As far back as my eighth grade year I can recall hearing about blind students attending NIU. I had considered going there myself after I toured the school seven years ago, but back then I was intimidated by the large campus — more than 20,000 students go to NIU.

My boyfriend is blind, and visiting him at NIU gave me first-hand knowledge of the resources and wonderful transportation services available for students with disabilities there. When I was still at COD, I’d take a train trip to see him every 12 days. I’d stay the weekend, get home on a Sunday, and
leave about 12 days later for another visit. After so many visits, I had a change of heart and applied. And am I glad I did!

When I arrived here in August I spent the first few days touring campus. I was amazed, impressed, and very happy with everyone’s reaction to a blind student walking around campus. When I attended my local community college, I’d get frantic apologies when I’d accidentally run into someone, and all sorts of unusual reactions to my white cane, too. Some people didn’t even understand what it was. It was clear I was one of very few blind students at COD.

Here at Northern Illinois University, things are different. When I walk around campus here at NIU, several people (often at the same time) stop me and offer to help. Many are very familiar with sighted guide techniques. Students here just seem very accustomed to seeing a white cane or even a guide dog.

The social aspect is fantastic. Almost all my close friends live in my building, and if they don’t, they are a five minute walk or a 10 minute drive. We use what’s called the husky Line Freedom Mobile, which is a free door-to-door Para transit service for NIU students with disabilities. It will take you anywhere in the area, and off campus after 5 p.m.

I’ve already found my favorite coffee shops and music venues, and I’ve been to pretty nice restaurants. I have yet to explore so much more!

Stay tuned for Alicia’s next post, where she’ll be describing what moving day was like and how she manages to get from class to class at such a huge college campus without being able to see.

 

A dad’s perspective: First day of kindergarten, part two

As promised in Bernhard Walke’s previous post, here’s part two of his story about his daughter Elena’s first day of kindergarten this year.

Elena

Elena on her first day of school.

by Bernhard Walke

As we spotted Elena’s aid in the school yard, we settled into line, talked about first day logistics and nervously waited for the students to enter the building. I looked around and saw some students beaming with excitement to start the first day, others clinging to a parent with subtle hesitation, and a few in outright and unapologetic hysterics.

I looked down at Elena and saw that she was still beaming with excitement. “This girl is ready for kindergarten,” I thought to myself. “She’s gonna be great.” And with that, her aid whisked Elena away and rolled her up a ramp that had been installed especially for her.

She was off to a new chapter in life, and I went off to work.

During my 35 minute commute to work, I thought a bit more about Elena’s classmates. For many of them, this might have been their first day of school ever. For Elena, she has been in school in early childhood special education since the day after she turned three years old. Thanks to the help of Easterseals DuPage and Fox Valley and so many others, the school experience was nothing new to Elena.

After a month in full day kindergarten, there have been many highs, but some lows, too. Still, I realized very early on that it’s all worth it. Just two days after school began, Elena, her mother and I were running around town doing our mundane weekly errands when four of her new kindergarten friends dragged their parents over to meet Elena. In a world where this five-year-old girl is most often recognized first by her chair, I was pleased and overjoyed by the fact that her classmates recognized my daughter first and foremost for exactly who she is: their friend.

 

Is Disability Finally Having its Moment?

Randy Rutta

Easterseals CEO Randy Rutta

The pulse and pace of disability is being featured more prominently in the public discourse, and more than ever before. Could this be the moment people in the disability community have fought for?

Last year, you’d be pressed to find an accurate portrayal of children and adults with a disability in scripted television. Today, the sitcom Speechless, about a “new” kind of family and starring an actor who really has a disability, is one of the most promising shows in the Fall TV lineup. And A&E’s Born This Way, that chronicles the lives of young adults with Down syndrome, received the Emmy for best unscripted reality television series. Read more on my Huffington Post blog.

 

Teaching children with disabilities about politics

All the buzz about last night’s presidential debate makes today the perfect day to publish a guest post about an article in disability thinking that encourages parents to talk with their children who have disabilities about politics. That article got a lot of attention over the summer, and I asked guest blogger Chris Hermann to write a post with his impressions. Chris and his wife have two children, and the family bonds together every Sunday morning in front of the TV to watch shows about, you guessed it…politics.

That’s Chris Hermann with his ten-year-old daughter.

That’s Chris Hermann and his ten-year-old daughter.

by Chris Hermann

I completely agree with that story in Disability Thinking. The author was spot on about both the importance of introducing our children to politics and the benefits of activism.

Introducing our children to politics and our legislative system gives them an idea of how this country runs and provides an avenue for open and honest discussions about what is happening in the world. Rather than just telling our seven-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter how to interpret news of the day or quoting the candidates, we have real discussions with our children and learn what they feel about things they’ve seen and heard. Different perspectives are brought to light by our children, and as parents, we know that teaching them to back up their statements with facts rather than just opinions will benefit them in many ways later in life.

It is especially important to include our daughter, who has cerebral palsy, in our conversations. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States has a disability, yet you’d never know that from what the politicians say. The focus of politicians when discussing disability is often limited to linking it to healthcare. This does a disservice to everyone. The world of disabilities is large and diverse, and the disability community isn’t as organized and unified as, say, the women’s movement or the LGBTQ community is. Yet, if you include people with disabilities, those who care for them, those who live with them, it could be an enormous voting block to get some effective change.

If we speak with our children about politics there is a chance they will be active citizens in democracy – at all levels. This means the children with disabilities may grow up to be activists with disabilities, furthering a political discourse that includes them and doesn’t just talk about them. Or at them.

Even if children with disabilities don’t grow up to be activists, talking with them about politics now will make it more likely that they understand their government, their own rights and how to exercise them. They can put all this knowledge into practice as early as elementary school as they learn how to navigate teachers, school policies and the education system — all while making friends on the playground.

In our home, we make it a point to watch and listen to political figures we don’t always agree with as well. It is important to understand where other people are coming from with their opinions and viewpoints. We also do this to try to see where compromises can be made. We want our children to understand it is unrealistic to expect a party to unilaterally do everything it wants. Compromise is important, and if the two parties cannot agree on anything, nothing gets done. (Illinois budget crisis anyone?) This really is a life skill, isn’t it? How often do you get to do exactly what you want to do?

We have yet to see a person with a physical disability on one of the Sunday morning political talk shows. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened — just that we haven’t seen it. And in our family, the absence or infrequency of this demographic is a discussion topic itself. Why aren’t there more people with disabilities on these shows? Why aren’t the hosts asking people with disabilities how the election will affect them and their needs? Why is it that so few people with disabilities become policy wonks and come up with the policies that affect them?

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) didn’t just magically end discrimination towards people with disabilities, and it didn’t suddenly make the world physically accessible to all. If the legacy of the ADA is to continue and to be effective, we have to educate our children about activism and politics.

<

 

4 simple ways to promote inclusion at work for people with disabilities

Bridget Hayman

Bridget Hayman

I spent some time recently thinking about my experience in the workforce as a person with a disability… first as an intern, then a communications professional, and now as a manager who employs others with disabilities.

I’m reminded by the latest employment headlines that all too often the biggest employment barrier for people like me (I have Cerebral Palsy and use a wheelchair) is stigma, and that today the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is two times higher than that of people without disabilities.

With a growing disability population and evolving business models, the need for inclusive workplaces has never been greater.  Inclusion is a win for everyone — giving people with disabilities the opportunity to work and rewarding employers with dedicated and talented staff.

Throughout my 15-year career, I’ve worked to break down barriers by bringing my best to each job I take on, and I know first hand how employees with disabilities add value by offering a new, vital perspective that leads to better products and processes. To put it bluntly, hiring people with disabilities is not just the right thing to do, it’s a smart investment.

That said, true inclusion can sometimes seem daunting to employers, and it might be hard to know where to begin.

With that in mind, I’ve gathered four relatively simple ideas to consider during the hiring process and throughout employment, based on my experience, to help employers get and keep the diverse talent they need.

Be transparent. Don’t assume, ask. You shouldn’t hesitate to involve people with disabilities in your planning process.  I’ve been floored to discover how much work and time has gone into accessibility planning for conferences, outings, and even my own work space before I’ve been consulted… if I’ve been consulted at all.  I feel bad when I have to recommend last-minute changes that would have been easy fixes had I known about them from the start.  The best working relationships I’ve had have been based on open communication with me clearly stating my needs and my superiors sharing their plans.

Think beyond the desk. It’s best to avoid thinking in terms of special access, or solely ADA compliance, and start thinking in terms of universal access.  Think about what a job entails.  Will an employee need universal access throughout the building? To common areas like the lunchroom? Will they be traveling for work? How will they get to and from the office? Discussing how they go about doing their job, and the access supports they need, leads to better results and a better work environment for everyone.

Remember, barrier-free is better for everyone. At one of my jobs, an accessible button was installed to open the door to my department.  It certainly made it easier for me to move freely through the office, but apparently it was removed when I left.  That led to several employee complaints because that department door is also the entrance to the mail room.  It was next to impossible to open the door when pushing the mail cart without a button.  I hear that door button has been re-installed. Remember, universal access benefits everyone, not just employees with disabilities.

 Evaluate your emergency evacuation process. Most people don’t know what the emergency evacuation plan is in their office building for people who need physical assistance to get downstairs.  Find out, and consult with all staff about their comfort level.  When the process was reviewed at one of my jobs, my fellow employees decided it was inadequate even though it met the fire code because it involved leaving me alone in a stairwell.  They revamped the entire process,  and then we practiced it… often.  These practice sessions took place beyond my department on every floor, so that all employees were well-versed in helping… not just me… but anyone needing assistance due to disability, physical limitations or temporary injury.

I hope you find these tips helpful. Do you have any to share? Leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you. And be sure to check out Easterseals job training services.

 

Dad talks kindergarten: A milestone for his daughter with a disability

Elena

Elena on her first day of school.

Editor’s Note: Chances are your social news feed has been peppered with back-to-school pictures this month, and today we have one more to share with you along with a great story.

As a school administrator himself, frequent Easterseals blogger Bernhard Walke has seen many first days throughout his career. But this year, the start of school marked a major milestone in his family. His daughter Elena, who has a disability, is non-verbal, and uses a wheelchair, started kindergarten in a mainstream classroom. Bernhard tells us, in this first part of a two-part entry, what it was like for him to help her get ready for her first day.

Our daughter Elena began kindergarten this month, an achievement that has been years in the making. I can only think of one other morning when I was more nervous: my wedding day.

On the first day of kindergarten, all eyes would be focused on my daughter with a disability rather than me. And that’s what scared me.

Ever since she was ten months old, Elena has been working at Easterseals DuPage and Fox Valley with a physical, occupational, and speech therapist – along with countless other assertive
technology experts and family members – to be able to live a life with the greatest ability possible.

Elena has been working very, very hard to get to this point, and her work seemed to be paying off. When school officials recommended Elena go into a mainstream educational setting, my wife and I felt like we had just ingested a mixed cocktail of excitement and fear.

Of course, we couldn’t be prouder of her. Elena has always been a trailblazer and pioneer, but sometimes we fear at what cost. I couldn’t help but look at her first day of kindergarten as a marker of her progress.

In anticipation of Elena’s enrollment, my wife and I met with the school’s principal last spring. During that meeting the principal mentioned that Elena would be the first non-verbal student who uses a chair for mobility to attend the school. There is an immense amount of pressure on her now that she’s “the first,” because many of “the firsts” in educational history haven’t always run as smoothly as possible.

The night before Elena’s first day, my wife and I picked out her school outfit, packed her backpack, charged her computer, signed the necessary forms, prepared her lunch, and got to bed a little bit earlier.

That morning, Elena scarfed down her breakfast in a record 30-minutes, and we loaded her into her wheelchair for the one-block walk to kindergarten.

We moved to a handicapped accessible home on the other side of town just six months ago, so Elena is a bit new to the neighborhood. Most of the kids are still getting to know her. None of this bothered Elena, though: as we rolled down the block and onto the playground, Elena’s trademark smile
appeared and cast a spell on several adults and students around her!

Stay tuned for Part Two of Elena’s First Day of Kindergarten to see how she nails it!

 

Last chance to witness glory: Paralympics end Sunday in Rio

Book coverLast month I happened to catch a story on Weekend Edition and heard NPR’s Rachel Martin talking with Lisa Fenn, the author of Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family. The two athletes Lisa Fenn profiled in her book and in a documentary for ESPN’s Outside the Lines program were there at the interview, too: Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton.

The story really caught my attention, and I’ve been watching for news of Dartanyon Crockett at the Paralympics in Rio.

Okay, I’ve been listening for news of his judo matches there. Because, just like Dartanyon Crockett, I am legally blind.

Crockett was one of the best wrestlers on his high school team. Leroy Sutton lost both legs in a train accident when he was 11 years old, and when Leroy transferred to Dartanyon Crockett’s high school he took up wrestling. Dartanyon Crockett carried him to practices and wrestling meets, and they took some high school classes together, too, always sitting side by side. “Dartanyon would get up to sharpen Leroy’s pencils,” an ESPN story last month reported. “Leroy ensured Dartanyon could read small print.” Both students graduated from a high school in Cleveland where fewer than 40% go home with a diploma.

Leroy Sutton went on to college from there, and Dartanyon Crockett moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs after coaches there recognized his natural athletic abilities and invited him to learn the Paralympics sport of judo.

All their hard work paid off. Last Saturday, September 10, 2016, Dartagnon Crockett won his second Paralympic Judo bronze medal (he won a Bronze Medal in judo during the 2012 Parolympic Games in London, too).

NBC Olympics have been presenting more than 70 hours of coverage of the Rio Paralympic Games across NBC, NBCSN, and the NBC Sports app –that’s an increase of 64 hours from the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The -by-play commentators, analysts and reporters are all former Paralympians. The Closing ceremony for these 2016 Paralympic Games is Sunday, September 18. Tune in and watch — or listen. You’ll be rewarded.

 

Executive Producer Jon Murray talks with us about Emmy winning ‘Born This Way’

Jonathan Murray

Television producer Jonathan Murray

A big congratulations to the groundbreaking show, Born this Way, which won an Emmy this week for best unstructured reality show!  The show, now in its second season, airs on Tuesday nights on A&E and focuses the lives of a group of young adults with Down Syndrome and their families.

Easterseals sat down with Executive Producer Jon Murray to talk about his vision for the show and what he’s learned from the cast. Check it out.

 

5 Reasons to Watch the Paralympics

This summer, the spirit of the Rio 2016 Olympics was felt in full force. We sat in front of our TV and computer screens, watching as some of our country’s greatest athletes broke records, won medals, and displayed excellent sportsmanship. No need to feel the post-Olympics blues, now it’s time to tune in to the 2016 Paralympics!

From September 7-18, watch incredible athletes with disabilities participating in sporting events like sailing, wheelchair fencing, wheelchair rugby, powerlifting, and rowing. Here are five reasons to watch the Rio 2016 Paralympics:

1. This year, the U.S.A. will send its largest delegation of athletes to the Paralympics ever. The Paralympics are growing every year, which means more and more people with disabilities are getting outside of their comfort zones and breaking down barriers. Meet the athletes:

2. Track and Field events will be full of action, representation, and firsts. It’s no surprise that track and field events are highly anticipated in the months leading up to the summer Olympics and Paralympics. This year, the track and field events will feature the largest range of disabilities and the largest team for the U.S.A. with 76 athletes. Be sure to watch out for Grace Norman and Allysa Seely, who will compete in both track and field events and the newest event, the paratriathlon.

3. 35 veterans are on team U.S.A. As supporters of veteran reintegration, we are excited to see that there are 35 military athletes on Team U.S.A. While most of these athletes are veterans, four are still active duty. Branches of the military represented include the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force. Be sure to check out the men’s volleyball team, where five of the 12 players are veterans. Other sports with military athletes include swimming, archery, shooting, and paratriathlon.

4. NBC added 60.5 more hours of coverage of the Paralympics. With disability in the spotlight in shows like Born This Way and Speechless, it’s clear that the more people with disabilities are given a voice, the more inclusion is possible. That’s why we’re so excited that NBC and NBCSN will air 66 hours of the Paralympics. We think Sir Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympics Committee said it best: “This is tremendous news for sports fans too, many of whom will be able to watch a Paralympic Games live for the first time.” (via)

5. Everybody is represented. The tallest Paralympian is 6’7” and the shortest is 3’ tall. Paralympians competing have visual impairments, intellectual disabilities, prosthetic limbs, and an array of other disabilities. So many people are represented on this international stage. And we’re excited to cheer them on.