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 easterseals.com/carewebinar.

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 veterans@easterseals.com.

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 Easterseals.com:

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 easterseals.com/thrive.
  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!


What?! Ridesharing services don’t have to adhere to ADA?

A few weeks ago my Seeing Eye dog and I took an Uber ride to a special “accessible” performance of the play Great Expectations. (Uber is an app for ordering a taxi or other car service.) From the Victory Gardens Theater website:

Wednesday, December 10 at 8:00 PM
Access Services include: Audio Description, Closed Captioning, Wheelchair accessibility, free UBER Transportation

All things being equal, I'd rather just walk.

All things being equal, I’d rather just walk.

I’ve written here before about my concerns regarding ridesharing services when it comes to picking up people with disabilities. I’ve used ridesharing services with non-disabled friends before, but I’d never tried using the service on my own. I’ve been curious to see how a Uber driver would react to a rider with a service dog, so, gee, if the ride to the theater would be free, that night seemed like the perfect time to try it.

Regular cab drivers are required by law to pick up people with disabilities who travel with service dogs, but since ridesharing drivers are independent contractors driving private vehicles, they don’t have to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Uber website says it like this:

We leave the decision whether or not to transport pets at the discretion of your driver. When traveling with a pet, we recommend calling your driver as soon as you’ve placed your request (tap the arrow next to your driver’s information, then “CONTACT DRIVER”) to make sure they don’t mind taking your pet.

A number of legal complaints have been filed alleging Uber discriminates against people who are blind and people who are visually impaired people who use guide dogs. The cases are still pending, but in the meantime Uber announced that they’ve launched a new platform to “train uberX partners on the necessary knowledge and safety requirements for those with accessibility needs.” People like me who might need special assistance were instructed to link to UberASSIST on the Uber app so a driver who’d been through the special training would come pick us up.

My husband Mike can see, so he took a photo of Whitney in her Seeing Eye harness standing next to me to use on my Uber account. He helped me plug in the special promo code and find the Uber ASSIST link on my talking iPhone, but I was so intent on simulating what the experience would be like on my own that I wouldn’t let him come out on the sidewalk and wait for the driver with me. “You can watch from inside the door there to make sure I get a ride, but you have to hide,” I told him.

When I heard my talking iPhone call out “Uber driver arriving in three minutes” I headed outside with Whitney and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally I heard the door to our building squeak open behind me. “He’s right there,” Mike whispered.

“But I’m blind!” I scolded back. “I want him to have to figure out how to let me know he’s here!” Just then my phone started ringing.

  • Uber Driver: Beth! It’s your Uber driver. I’m here.
  • Me: Yeah, so am I.
  • Uber Driver: Where?

I’d been standing as tall as I possibly could, with Seeing Eye dog Whitney right at my side. Didn’t he see our photo on his app? Wasn’t it obvious I can’t see? I gave our address, the one the magic app is supposed to give to the driver, and explained that I’m blind, and I can’t see him.

  • Uber Driver (sounding confused): Oh. Well, I’m right here in front of your building.
  • Me: But remember? I’m blind. I can’t see you.
  • Uber Driver (still sounding confused): Oh.
  • Me: Can you open the door and call out or something?
  • Uber Driver: Oh! Sorry. Yeah. Okay.

My driver got out, called my name, Whitney led me to the car, our driver opened the back door, I got in, buckled my seatbelt, called Whitney to come in to sit on the floor at my feet, and we were off. On our ride I complimented my driver’s big car, told him Whitney appreciated all the room she had on the floor, and asked him if he’d received special notice that we’d asked for an Uber ASSIST vehicle. He had no idea what I was talking about.

I spent most of the rest of the ride explaining what Uber ASSIST is, how it’s supposed to train interested drivers on the best ways to assist people with disabilities or special needs. “I’ve never heard of that,” he said, adding that he thought the idea was “really interesting.”

Uber ASSIST has some work to do. We were late for the audio tour they’d planned before the play, but the condensed audio tour the show’s actors and actresses squeezed in for me was very helpful, and the performance was absolutely wonderful. Sighted friends who met me there said they’d drive Whitney and me home afterwards, and so I told myself, what the heck, Uber ASSIST wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but at least the ride over was free. But then I got up the next morning and checked out my Uber ASSIST online receipt. I’d been charged for the ride.

Eyebrows up! A simple online complaint to Uber support clarified the error, my fare was adjusted to reflect the value of the promotion, and an updated receipt was sent to my email address so I could use my talking computer to check out the breakdown.

All’s well that ends well.


Book review: Marlene Brill’s “Speech and Language Challenges: The Ultimate Teen Guide”

I am pleased to introduce Speech-Language Pathologist Marsha Boyer as a guest blogger today. Marsha has 21 years experience working with children of all ages and is the founder and owner of Speech Connections, Inc. in Greenwood, Indiana.

Ambitious and impressive

by Marsha Boyer, M.A., CCC-SLP

0810887916People can have such a wide variety of communication difficulties — I had at least a dozen required text books to read and know while studying for a degree in Speech-Language Pathology, so I was curious about how Marlene Brill could possibly address the wide variety of communication difficulties a teen may have in a way that could keep a young adult interested.

She definitely hit the sweet spot with her young adult non-fiction book Speech and Language Challenges: The Ultimate Teen Guide. The book provides the academic definition of each area while keeping the topic concise enough to maintain the attention of a teen. Brill’s book also offers additional resources (support groups, other books and websites), that expand the topic or offer a place to go for help.

Personal accounts from teens assure the young readers they are not alone. Additionally, stories relating the personal struggles of well-known young adults encourage readers to continue to think positively while experiencing the same struggle.

The steady increase in the number of bilingual speakers in the schools makes the chapter that talks about bilingual speakers especially important. Ms. Brill not only explains the difficulties that bilingual speakers experience, but, more importantly, she provides suggestions to help teens better connect with their bilingual peers.

It’s pretty ambitious for an author to try to tackle all of this in one book, and Marlene Brill did an impressive job.


Visiting aging relatives? 3 things you should look for

Loving Conversations cover photo, shows two adult children and their motherHoliday visits with aging parents or grandparents may offer the first opportunity in several months to evaluate changes in older family members’ lives and notice signs that could indicate a need for increased support. When home for the holidays, it is important to assess the needs of your aging loved ones so you can ensure their safety and security at home.

1. Make sure your loved one is eating regularly and maintaining a clean household. Ensure all food is fresh and edible and that the pantry is fully stocked. Also, check that the house is tidy, in good shape and not a safety hazard to your relative.

2. Be aware of any changes in your loved one’s personal hygiene and medication schedule. Watch for changes in personal habits such as infrequent bathing, not shaving or dressing inappropriately for the weather. Also, familiarize yourself with any medications your loved one might be taking on a regular basis and make sure they’re taking them on schedule.

3. Check to see that your loved one is maintaining their typical routines and activities with ease. Does your loved one still attend their weekly bingo game, visit with friends and run necessary errands? Check with neighbors and friends to see if they’ve noticed any differences in behavior. Also, if your loved one still drives, take a drive with them and make sure they are able to drive safely and comfortably in the local area.

If you can’t make it home this holiday season, here are a few ways to care for your aging loved ones while far away:

1. Create a support network within the community to help you care for your loved one. Work with neighbors, friends and medical providers to set up a schedule where someone can check on your loved one consistently and provide them with anything they might need and are unable to get themselves.

2. Consider working with a geriatric care manager. Many long-distance caregivers find it helpful to work with geriatric care managers to arrange caregiving services. These eldercare professionals can help assess needs and coordinate services in your loved one’s area, whether it be arranging a one-time move or a long-term care relationship.

3. Create a caregiving plan and involve your loved one as much as possible. Include other family members, friends and care managers while creating a plan for your loved one. Establishing a firm schedule will help your loved one adjust and will spread responsibility between all parties involved.

Learn more about caring for your aging relatives by downloading Easter Seals’ Loving Conversations, an online guide full of resources for adult day services and solutions for common transportation challenges.


10 ways to make holidays easier for children with developmental disabilities

holiday gifts wrappedThe holidays can be an especially difficult time for people with developmental disabilities. And who can blame them? Changes in routine, different demands, new foods, sounds, textures — what a challenge!

A post I read years ago on the ABA4Autism or other Neuropsychological Disorders blog serves as a good reminder when holiday time comes for our grown son Gus, who has severe and profound disabilities. The post offers tips to make the winter holidays better:

1. Try to keep your child in his or her usual routine as much as possible.

2. Sensory over stimulation — the lights, sounds, smells, and even the relatives who want to hug your child — are the main culprits during the holidays. Eliminating or minimizing these culprits are your best bet. Plus, you may want to talk to your family about how to greet your child when they arrive, too.

3. Instead of limiting the holiday decorations, some families who have children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders wait until Christmas Eve to put up their tree and decorate.

4. Some families let their children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders do all of the decorating. Children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders may line up or stack decorations rather than decorate in the traditional way, but so what. Let them enjoy the activity in their own way.

5. Rather than try to do the Christmas shopping with children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders in a crowded, noisy mall, many families shop by catalogue or online and let the child point to or circle the toys he/she wants. Websites, such as www.stars4kidz.com, offer a variety of toys for children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders. Just type “autism toys” in your search engine.

6. Tactile toys are often a better choice for children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders. Toys that make sounds or involve too much stimulation or are too complex may not cause an aversive reaction in the child. As I mentioned above, there are websites that sell toys designed for children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders. Try ordering some of these toys and then let your child select the ones to play with as they are unwrapped.

7. Talk to relatives before they come over about the best way to behave with children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders. Have them read my article, “What Horses Tell Us About Autism,” which is available for free on this website.

8. Generally, kids with autism or other neuropsychological disorders do better in the morning than in the late afternoon or evening when they are tired. It may be better to schedule Christmas events at these times.

9. The parents of children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders need to relax themselves. Often the child with autism picks up on the parents’ stress and that is enough to ruin Christmas.

10. And last but not least, realize that you are probably not going to have perfect food, perfect decorations and perfect gifts. Christmas with children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders may not be traditional, but it can still have real meaning. (Sometimes I wonder if children with autism or other neuropsychological disorders know that Christmas has become too commercial.)

We’re off to Wisconsin soon to celebrate an early Christmas with our grown son Gus in his group home. I’ll keep some of these tips (especially the one reminding parents to relax!) in mind.

Related Resources from Easter Seals:

Get unique gift ideas for caregivers, which includes parents of children with and without disabilities.