We’re featuring our best relationship stories and advice

love-dating-relationships-375x264Relationships come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes the shapes and sizes include disabilities, big and small. In honor of Valentine’s Day, the Easter Seals blog and Easter Seals website will be spending the month of February exploring the many forms our relationships can take. We’ll have first-hand accounts from the frontlines of relationships with parents, children, siblings, friends, caregivers, partners, relatives, and spouses, all with people living—and loving—with disabilities.

People sometimes ask me if it was difficult to form relationships after losing my sight. My answer is always yes, but then I come back with a question of my own: “Is it ever easy to form solid relationships?” The person and I have a laugh together, and, ironically, a relationship is born.

In the end, I’d say relationships with people who have disabilities are similar to other relationships: they come much easier once people get past questions and concerns and just start communicating. Find out what our other bloggers think by reading their posts about relationships this month. After all, they’re the experts!

And visit Easterseals.com/love for dating and relationship advice and stories. We’ve even got some very unique marriage proposal stories for you, too!


Transitioning people with disabilities into the workforce

Bob G blog post on employment-Feb2015Last month Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker invited one of ours to his State of the State speech!

Let me explain: after naming 2014 the “Year of the Better Bottom Line” to encourage the hiring and promotion of individuals with disabilities, Governor Walker wanted a number of people with him at the State of the State who were employed thanks to this initiative. One of those newly employed individuals was Danny Gris, who completed the Project SEARCH program here at Easter Seals Southeast Wisconsin.

In his speech, Governor Walker explained “The Better Bottom Line” like this:

Last year, we announced a new program called A Better Bottom Line that was patterned after an idea from my friend, Delaware Governor Jack Markell, when he was chair of the National Governors Association. It is about helping employers identify the unique abilities of people who are defined, by some, as having a disability.

The governor explained that the initiative “expanded programs helping transition people with disabilities into the workforce in a way that matched their skills with the needs of prospective employers.” Danny attended the State of the State address with Jeanne Schultz from Waukesha Memorial Hospital (one of our business liaisons) and he described the experience as “really cool”:

I felt proud to sit right in the middle of the second row of guests in the Assembly Chamber. I met Attorney General Brad Schimel and took a tour of his office. After the speech Governor Walker shook my hand and took a picture with me and Jean Schultz!

Danny works at a local grocery store, and the skills he learned at Project SEARCH are helping him to be a great employee. Our state motto is “Forward” and our Project SEARCH graduates are living up to that motto, moving forward: 80% of individuals that come through Easter Seals Project SEARCH sites are happily employed. Our thanks to Governor Walker for being a champion for Danny and hundreds of other men and women like him from across the great state of Wisconsin.

Related Resources;

Easter Seals is a proud partner of Getting Hired, a career resources for people with disabilities, as well as Direct Employers, a job search portal for veterans.


What message do Tim Tebow’s special needs proms really send?

Football player Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow (AP)

Any high-school movie will tell you: prom is more than a dance and an excuse to get dolled up. It’s a night that celebrates adolescence and embraces the next journey in young adult life. Prom is an evening where all students, no matter where they sit at lunch or what clique they belong to, come together one last time.

Hollywood might portray prom as a picturesque evening, but the reality is that prom can be far from the suburban fairytale we envision, and a new trend on the rise begs the question of whether the typical high school prom truly is welcoming to all students.

Tim Tebow, a former NFL quarterback and current sports network analyst, recently announced his plans to host 45 prom events specifically for teens with disabilities and special needs on February 13. The series of simultaneous proms, called Night to Shine, is sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation and the dances are expected to draw a crowd of nearly 7,000 teens across 26 states and three countries. Each prom will include the fixings of a magical evening. Attendees will be able to get moving on the dance floor, strut across a red carpet entrance and arrive by limousine.

By the sounds of it, this prom already blows mine out of the water! A genuinely good guy is using his influence to give back to the disability community–what could possibly be controversial about it? I’m not here to denounce Tebow, his foundation or Night to Shine. I have respect for all three. Tim’s heart is in the right place and these teens are more than deserving of a special evening. My concern is that some people feel a need to segregate an event that should celebrate inclusivity.

We’re approaching the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that revolutionized the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. Yet half a century later we’re struggling to make an event that celebrates togetherness accessible for all students.

The media is quick to spotlight an increasing number of events like Night to Shine, yet it misses the mark when it comes to exploring why these dances exist in the first place. Even more upsetting is that these proms are privately funded events held at unaffiliated locations like churches and event halls, with no support from the schools they serve. I have to ask: Are high schools doing enough to make sure their proms are welcoming to students of all abilities?

Here are a few starting tips for schools preparing for the big dance this spring:

  1. Choose an ADA compliant location: Schools often elect to hold their proms at off-site locations like hotels, ballrooms or country clubs. Even though it’s 2015, some of these locations are still living in the past—with amenities that fail to meet the standard for ADA compliance. In 2013, an Oregon teen, learned he could not attend his own prom because the event space had no elevator to their second story ballroom. The key to avoiding disaster is research. Make sure to ask the events coordinator at a given location about their accessibility.
  • Be Sensitive to Sensitivities: To make prom a joyous night for all teens, schools must go beyond the basic ADA standards. Teens have different sensitivities based on their unique abilities. Choose a dance floor that’s large enough to support multiple wheelchairs, opt for lighting that is comfortable and make sure there are quiet areas in place for attendees needing a break from blaring music.
  • Listen to your students: Want to learn how to appeal to the needs of your students? The answer is simple….ASK! Students will be happy to share how their evening can be enhanced, be it from hiring an interpreter to being able to avoid certain foods that irritate allergies.
  • Learn from peer institutions: An increasing amount of inclusive educational programs are popping up throughout the country. These schools pride themselves on offering quality educational experiences to students of all abilities.
  • Here at Easter Seals we’ve been lucky enough to talk with people at the Chime Institute, a California charter-school that’s a national leader in the development of inclusive education. At Chime, students of all abilities learn side by side, enhancing each child’s strength, while also fostering educational progress.

I’m encouraging a call-to-action for schools to examine whether their “inclusive” evenings really are welcoming to all students. Know of any schools exhibiting true accessibility when it comes to dances? Any thoughts on influencers like Tebow funding separate dances? Please share your opinions in the comments section.


Related Links:

  • Prom is a milestone moment for many. Share your prom photos on Twitter or Instagram with #LifesMoments to be featured on easterseals.com. We’re sharing our achievements and milestones all season long. Join us!




In search of an improved transition for veterans

Col. Sutherland testifying

Col. Sutherland testifying

Testifying before a Congressional Committee is a great opportunity to inform and educate an important audience about a topic I’m very passionate about – ways to improve the military-to-civilian transition.

I was asked to provide my thoughts on the military’s Transition Assistance Program, also known as TAP. The completion of TAP is the beginning – not the end – of the service member’s reintegration process. In fact, the hardest work begins once final TAP sessions concludes. That’s because there are just some things that government can’t do.

The minute they step off the military base, veterans enter the community – and that is where the real transition starts. While the new TAP provides a good start, it could be improved.

A young Marine Lance Corporal named Gary who participated in the program last fall told me that he’d rate the information a B- or a C+. “It’d earn a higher grade had it been more specific to where I was going – even just sending me off with a list of key resources, such as the location of the VA or the job service.”  Gary was equipped with basic tools, but there was never instruction, strategies or next steps for connecting to the community nearly 750 miles away that he would soon call home.

We ought to be measuring outcomes instead of completion so that we can review and adjust transition programs as needs evolve. For example, instead of recording a service member’s transition as a success because he or she completed the program, TAP should look at outcomes such as employment, home ownership, and financial solubility.

Sometimes the handoff to the community gets a shaky start. Paychecks aren’t deposited on time; housing falls through; the car breaks down. In these cases, the community becomes the final catchall. This could be made simpler if service members had the option of sharing their contact information with the community to which they are transitioning so they could learn about additional community-based assistance. To that end, Congress should authorize and fund grants so that communities can map available assets for veterans.

We must also recognize that reintegration challenges often surface months or years after the initial transition. Communities need to be there to support these veterans and their families before their situations turn into crisis and require more intensive and expensive interventions. Congress has done an effective job in developing and funding programs to assist veterans through community-based services and supports when they have hit crisis. But early-intervention models would be more efficient and productive. For example, Congress ought to extend and expand programs such as the Rural Veterans Coordination Pilot.

Every veteran matters, and their lives should be better because of our collective efforts at the national and community levels. This is my motivation, and I was honored to share it with Congress this past week.

To read Colonel Sutherland’s full testimony, visit the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Or watch the webcast of the hearing, including the Q&A session.


Why couldn’t this reputable chef get a new job?

That’s Chef Laura Martinez, owner of La Diosa.

Laura Martinez was one of the dozens of restaurant workers who were out of work when the late chef Charlie Trotter closed Charlie Trotter’s, his five-star restaurant here in Chicago, back in 2012. Laura is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, and she’d been working at the iconic restaurant for more than two years. You’d think a graduate of a prestigious cooking school and experience in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant would have an easy time finding a new job, but not so for Laura.

You see, Laura Martinez is blind.

Laura got her job at Charlie Trotter’s after the late chef and restaurant owner visited the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. Laura had been working in the Lighthouse cafeteria kitchen at the time, and it was love at first taste. Charlie was quoted in an article in the Chicago Tribune back then about Laura:

“I was watching her work and saw how she handled things with her hands, touching for temperature and doneness, and I ate her food and it was quite delicious. We got to talking and she told me about her dreams and I said, ‘What would you think about working at Charlie Trotter’s?'”

Laura was already attending the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary program at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago at the time. Charlie Trotter offered to help with her tuition, and Laura accepted a job at his restaurant after she graduated.

The Illinois Department of Human Services hired a personal assistant to help Laura with on-the-job training, but then staff at Charlie Trotter’s took Laura under their wing and started providing her with supportive job assistance, removing the need for the personal assistant. I had the privilege of meeting Laura in 2011, and she told me co-workers on the line at Charlie Trotter’s had become comfortable having her there prepping, cleaning and chopping.

Trotter said Martinez was an exceptional worker who brought value to his restaurant. “Besides being a great cook, she brings value through her professionalism. She is a great team member.” An executive chef at a downtown Chicago restaurant had Laura in for an interview shortly after Charlie Trotter’s restaurant closed, and from all accounts, her interview went well — she especially nailed it when asked how she handles challenges in the kitchen. That was the only interview she had, though, and she wasn’t offered a job. A story in Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune explains:

Martinez – who has been blind since she was a baby – struggled to find employment after the closure of the late chef’s namesake restaurant. “Nobody wanted to hire me,” said the 30-year-old chef.

Laura did some catering work and taught cooking classes for blind teenagers at the Chicago Lighthouse, but eventually, she did what so many of us with disabilities do when no one else will hire us full-time: we start our own company. Again, from Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune:

“Of course, it’s my passion more than anything,” she said.
Martinez, who describes La Diosa’s cuisine as “contemporary French, Mexican and Italian,” always knew that she would one day open a restaurant, “But not so soon. I thought maybe it would take a few years.”

The name of Laura’s restaurant, La Diosa, means “the goddess” in Spanish, and it opened at 2308 N. Clark Street in Chicago on Friday, January 16. The place is small – 450 square feet – and is described as more of a grab-and-go than a sit-down restaurant. La Diosa does have a few tables, though, and the menu offers Mexican comfort food with “a French twist” as an homage to Charlie Trotter. Some of us here at Easter Seals Headquarters are putting together a field trip to head out there and try it for lunch sometime. Stay tuned, we’ll write reviews.


One good reason to pick the Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl

Seattle Seahawks - Derrick ColemanI’m rooting for the Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl, and here’s why: they’re the only NFL team in the Super Bowl who signed a player with an obvious disability.

Seattle Seahawk running back Derrick Coleman is the NFL’s first legally deaf offensive player. He rushed for 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns during his college career at UCLA, and he’s educated coaches at all levels of his career about his ability to communicate with his team.

Coleman was not drafted immediately after college, but the Minnesota Vikings signed him as a free agent in 2012. He was waived in training camp, and the Seahawks signed him as a free agent in December of that year.

A video the NFL produced about Coleman before last year’s Super Bowl does a great job showing how he uses resourcefulness to solve problems related to his deafness. It opens with a shot of his mother tearing up her pantyhose: she and Derrick figured out that wrapping it around his hearing aids cuts the feedback he’d been getting under the football helmet.

The video goes on to demonstrate how Coleman educated his teammates about his disability. He can lip-read, so he taught the quarterback to always turn around and look directly his way when giving audibles. The quarterback had to take his mouth guard out from time to time, too, so Coleman could see his lips. The filmmakers interviewed the Seahawks coach in the video, and he recognizes the extra effort that Derrick Coleman always puts in. “His work ethic is outstanding,” the coach says. “We just had to put him on the field to see if he could put it all together.” Obviously, he could. Put it all together, I mean. So well, in fact, that he helped the Seahawks make it to this Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Coleman won’t be playing in the game this Sunday, unfortunately – he was put on the injured reserve list after cracking a bone in his foot during warm-ups. I know he’ll be rooting for the Seahawks from the sidelines this Sunday, though, and you know what? So will I.


7 ways brain games helped a coma patient after awaking

I am pleased to introduce Debbie Hampton as a guest blogger today. Lifestyle and thought modifications, therapies, and mental health practices helped Debbie recover from a suicide attempt and the resulting brain injury. Her willingness to share her story now helps others to build a better brain, and consequently, a better life.

Debbie Hampton

Debbie Hampton

Rebuilding My Brain

by Debbie Hampton

When I woke up from my coma, I was barely there. I couldn’t focus on anything, and my brain couldn’t make sense of what it was seeing. When I opened my mouth to speak, all that spewed out was garbled noises. My mutilated speech was disturbingly slow, flat, and mangled. My brain was working, but painfully slow.

A week earlier I had tried committing suicide by swallowing an assortment of pills, mostly brain drugs. I had survived, but my brain was stuck in a drugged stupor.

I eventually recovered enough to resume living independently, but I was still very mentally impaired. I had no short-term memory and unreliable long-term memory, an inability to focus, aphasia, poor people skills, no math aptitude, and little impulse control. The very good news was that I’d healed enough emotionally to decide that I did want to live, and I promised myself, “I AM NOT living like this!”

I started researching ways to rebuild my brain and tried everything from supplements and exercise to alternative therapies and brain training.

Brain training takes advantage of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its form and function throughout your life. Your brain is changing every minute of every day, and brain training exercises harness and direct this process. Just as you workout to exercise your body, you can exercise your memory, attention, and other cognitive skills to keep them in top shape. Benefits of brain training include:

  • faster thinking
  • better memory
  • finding words
  • sharper listening and vision
  • quicker reflexes
  • safer driving
  • improved mood

Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program — now offered as part of BrainHQ — is one of the first brain training software programs I purchased. The first Brain Fitness Program (I refer to it as BFP) exercise assessed my brain’s processing speed by having me listen to sounds that went up or down, called sweeps. At first it was infuriatingly difficult for me to tell which way the sound was going, and as I improved, the software adjusted to continually challenge me.

When I completed the program, I did another assessment and was thrilled to find that my processing speed had more than doubled. What a fantastic discovery! Something that substantially improved my brain without expensive doctor visits, medication, or therapy. All I had to do was sit at a computer and have fun.

I went through the BFP again and again until I stopped seeing improvement. I moved on to other brain training products after that, but I would run through the BFP again from time to time to give my brain a tune-up.

The effectiveness of brain training is still the subject of debate in the scientific community, but I’m convinced it helped me dramatically and was crucial to my recovery. Judge for yourself by following my blog, The Best Brain Possible, where I post about ways to improve your brain…and your life.

For a free unlimited sample of four brain exercises, try the Easter Seals Train Your Brain Challenge, too. Easter Seals also has brain health programs for both youths and adults and seniors.


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.