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December 26, 2007 > The invincible invisibles

The invincible invisibles

By Mattie Carvalho
Photos By Mattie Carvalho

Travel back in time to Berkeley, California in the early 1970s. Out of that tree-hugging, peace-loving, bell-bottom wearing, war-protesting era, grew many social and political movements based on the ideals that all citizens of the United States should have the same liberties and rights. Among the most prominent grassroots movements of the time was the Independent Living Movement. Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, the Independent Living Movement, likewise, rose out of the desire for people with disabilities to live in a society that is free of oppression. While admiring Rosa Park's courageous decision to sit in the front of a segregated bus, many with disabilities wondered how they could even get onto the bus.

Throughout history, people with disabilities have experienced prejudice and discrimination. Many were placed in state institutions for life; others were prohibited from marrying or were forced to become sterilized. Children were not allowed to attend the same public schools as their non-disabled peers.

Over the years, several federal laws have been passed that attempted to eliminate some of the barriers faced by persons with disabilities. In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act (particularly Title V, Sections 501, 503, and 504) was enacted which states, "No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

The Education of All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was passed in 1975. This law states that children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 prohibits discrimination in housing against people with disabilities. It also demands architectural accessibility of certain new housing units, renovation of existing units, and modifications for accessibility at the renter's expense. Most importantly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990. This law provides comprehensive civil rights protection for people with disabilities.

Despite the positive changes in policy and the progress pushed forth by the Independent Living movement, many issues that persons with disabilities continue to struggle with remain. Consequently, there have been organizations established to promote the rights of those with disabling conditions. The Center for Independent Living (CIL), founded in 1972 in Berkeley was the first organization of its kind. At its core is the idea that everyone, including people with severe disabilities, should have choice and a voice in their community. Every individual has the right to a job, a home, accessibility, schooling, and in general, the freedom to determine for themselves what is in their best interest.

The Center for Independent Living became a model for hundreds of other centers throughout California and across the United States. The goal of these centers is to provide the necessary resources that will enable persons with disabilities to become independent and self-reliant. Individuals become informed, learn about their rights, support each other, and congregate as a cohesive group in order to advance further social change.

In Alameda County, individuals with disabilities can access free services and resources from the Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL), created in 1979. The home office of this organization is located in Hayward, with satellite branches for the Tri-City and Tri-Valley areas in Fremont and Livermore, respectively. These centers focus on objectives similar to the original Center for Independent Living. That is, to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, to improve their quality of life, and make communities fully accessible.

Services are provided free of charge to anyone that has a disability, whether physical, sensory, cognitive, or mental. Seniors with disabling conditions such as arthritis or heart disease can also benefit from CRIL services. The Community Resource for Independent Living educates its members on how to "navigate through the system," providing information on how to apply for Social Security, Medi-Cal, or Medicare benefits from the federal or state governments.

Because the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities is high - between 60 and 70 percent - many struggle just to make ends meet. CRIL helps its members find subsidized or otherwise affordable housing. They also support work incentive programs that would allow more people with disabilities to work, as it is a common misconception that people with disabilities are either unwilling or unable to work.

In addition, the Community Resource for Independent Living helps its members find care-giving attendants and works with Alameda County In-Home Support Services to ensure that the needs of its clients are being met. Information on available assistive technology is another invaluable service offered by CRIL. Assistive technology provides tools that help individuals carry out day-to-day tasks. For example, persons that are deaf or hard-of-hearing may require an alarm clock that vibrates. Someone that has problems with vision or fine-motor control may need a telephone with large buttons. Others may need utensils that are shaped differently or gardening tools designed to be easier to use by someone with arthritis or weak bones.

The Community Resource for Independent Living cares about the safety of its members. Aside from handing out emergency preparedness kits, they also take a look at the streets and pedestrian walkways around local neighborhoods to highlight problems that may compromise the safety of the community. For instance, a person who is blind relies on the sound of passing cars to alert him or her of whether it is safe to cross. Busier streets may require additional stop signs or more time might be needed at pedestrian cross lights to allow for persons with disabilities to cross the street safely. In cases such as these, CRIL might organize a group that would contact local agencies, such as Transportation & Operations, and ask for the needed changes. Again, everyone deserves a safe and confident walking experience.

As the Community Organizer, Jessica Lehman encourages participation of all who care about disability issues. She believes that everyone has a voice. By sharing personal experiences and insights, people can learn from each other and strive to make changes. Within CRIL, there are educational workshops and peer support groups to facilitate this interaction within the community.

Local groups, known as Disability Action Networks (DAN), meet on a monthly basis to discuss problems related to disabilities, brainstorm solutions, and develop plans to enact change. One such problem is the lack of disabled parking spaces around local businesses. Although there might be enough disabled parking spaces, Jessica Lehman explained they may be inconvenient for the person needing to use it. As a course of action, CRIL might organize a letter-writing campaign or a rally in order to highlight a particular problem.

CRIL is also involved at state and national levels. Voter-registration campaigns are a high priority because persons with disabilities typically have a low voter turn-out rate. Also, the center organizes an annual Disability Capitol Action Day. During this event, independent living centers throughout the state are represented in Sacramento. There, individuals have the opportunity to meet with assembly members in order to discuss relevant issues such as affordable healthcare or support specific bills that would benefit those with disabilities.

Currently, the local chapter of the Disability Action Network (DAN) has approximately 30 participating members. The facilitator for this Tri-City group is Vicki Plaugher, who has been described as an excellent leader and advocate for the disabled community. The group meets the first Tuesday of every month at the Fremont Main Library on Stevenson Boulevard in Fremont. She invites anyone and everyone to attend, including those who do not have a disability, but with an interest in transforming this society into one that is all-inclusive.

When asked what she enjoys most about being the leader and member of such an amazing group of people, Vicki replied, "The fact that the disabled community is willing to come together, for all of us, to effect change. It is a difficult battle because people with disabilities are invisible... it seems that unless somebody is directly affected themselves or have a loved one or family member that becomes disabled, they don't think about what it takes to get through the day-to-day items that for those without a disability take for granted."

Community Resources for Independent Living
439 'A' St., Hayward
Hours: Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
(510) 881-5743
TTY: (510) 881-0218

Fremont Community Resources for Independent Living
Tri-Cities Branch Office
39155 Liberty St., Suite A100, Fremont
Tuesday & Thursday drop- in hours: 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. & 2 - 4:30 p.m.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday by appointment.
(510) 794-5735

Disability Action Network
First Tuesday of every month
3:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Van Doorn Room
Fremont Main Library
2400 Stevenson Blvd., Fremont

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