Empowering Independence: The Legacy of Vicki Skoog

Four white people in two rows smile at the camera. In back, there are two men wearing suits and between them, there is a woman with a blazer and scarf. In front, there is a woman in a black shirt who is seated in a wheelchair.

Vicki with her siblings. In front: Vicki Skoog. Behind (L-R): Don Heyliger, Susan Handy (Heyliger), and Doug Heyliger.

It is with heavy hearts The Independence Center shares the news of the March 4 passing of our founder, Vicki Skoog.

Born on June 18, 1945, in Michigan, Vicki’s journey led her to Colorado Springs when, in 1959, her father joined the coaching staff of the Air Force Academy hockey team. After pursuing her education at the University of Michigan and Parks Business College in Denver, Vicki dedicated herself to a Federal Civil Service job in Colorado Springs.

Her life changed in an instant in a hailstorm near Limon, Colorado in 1970, when the van in which she was traveling rolled in the severe weather. The accident resulted in Vicki becoming a person with quadriplegia. She spent a month in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at a local hospital and then was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado which specializes in spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury rehabilitation and research.

In 1987, Vicki embarked on a journey that would forever change the landscape of home healthcare in Colorado Springs. Frustrated with the lack of full-support home healthcare agencies, as well as the lack of transportation and services for people with disabilities, she decided if a change was needed, she was going to be the one to make it.

With a vision fueled by both compassion and determination, she founded The Independence Center, a Center for Independent Living for individuals with disabilities seeking independence and autonomy in their daily lives.

Driven by her personal experiences and a profound desire to make a difference, Vicki set out to create more than just a home health agency. She envisioned creating a community where individuals with disabilities of all ages could thrive, empowered to live life on their own terms. Thus, The Independence Center was born, with a mission to provide consumer-directed and led services that prioritize the autonomy and well-being of its consumers.

The organization had humble beginnings, with its first offices in Vicki’s home garage. The focus at the time was primarily on transportation and home healthcare. After receiving a grant from the El Pomar Foundation, which allowed the organization to purchase a fully-accessible van, The IC began to provide accessible transportation. The organization continued to grow, with additional focus on employment and housing.

In 1995, Vicki married Ted Skoog, who became CFO of The Independence Center until his passing in 2010. Ted worked with Vicki to complete her vision of a new facility for The IC, which was completed in 2009.

In 2011, to honor the work and legacy of Vicki and Ted Skoog, The Independence Center Fund (The IC Fund), was established to help fund essential programs and services that uphold the values of consumer-directed care. Over the past 13 years, The IC Fund has, among other impactful donations, purchased accessible exam tables for medical offices; helped increase accessibility of historic venues and trails/open spaces, purchased uniforms for the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind’s Special Olympics goalball, volleyball, and football teams. It has also awarded funds to recipients such as the Lincoln Community Hospital Care Center, The Community Transit Coalition, the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association (CSAHA), the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA)/ Colorado Springs Chapter, the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, Envida, Friends of El Paso County Nature Centers, Lake George Community Park, and the Colorado Veterans Resource Coalition

As we look to the future, the IC Fund remains steadfast in its commitment to advancing the cause of independence and inclusion. Through ongoing support and advocacy, it continues to pave the way for a more accessible and equitable society, where individuals of all abilities can thrive and contribute meaningfully to their communities.­­

Reflecting on the journey of The IC Fund over the past decade, we are reminded of the profound impact that a collective commitment to compassion and inclusivity can have on the world. From its humble beginnings to its ongoing legacy of empowerment, The IC Fund stands as a testament to the enduring power of community and the belief that every individual deserves the opportunity to live life on their own terms.

Vicki leaves behind her sister, Susan Handy; her son, David Mitschler; daughter-in-law, Heather Mitschler; Grandson, Bodey Mitschler, and her beloved best friend, a golden Labradoodle named Lilly. She also had countless friends, caregivers, and fellow disability-rights advocates who will miss her greatly.

As we reflect on the remarkable life of Vicki Skoog, we are reminded of the power of compassion, perseverance, and the profound impact that one person’s vision can have on the world. Her story serves as an inspiration to us all, a reminder that true independence knows no bounds and that with dedication and determination, anything is possible.

Over the years, The Independence Center flourished, guided by Vicki’s unwavering commitment. Her legacy lives on in the countless lives she has touched and the community she transformed. Today, the organization stands as a testament to her vision, providing a wide range of services and programs that empower individuals with disabilities to live so that ALL are Known, Valued, and Included.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Movement for Disability Justice

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, all Americans can reflect on the movement for civil rights in the United States and its achievements as well as its unrealized aims and goals. For the disability community, Dr. King’s life and work can serve as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. The fight for Black equality is still unfinished, but through the bravery of countless people throughout the last century, our country has come closer to Dr. King’s dream. Similarly, the fight for equality for people with disabilities and a world where everyone can be known, valued, and included continues.

When Rev. Dr. King said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere,” he summarized his own beliefs about how to organize for change. A centerpiece of his philosophy was the idea of solidarity: standing with a person or group that you yourself may not be a part of or may not benefit from. Dr. King’s focus in his life was on the civil, legal, and economic rights of Black Americans, but over and over he reached out to and formed coalitions with other groups that had different stated goals, such as striking sewage workers in Memphis, the American Jewish community, and indigenous people in the United States. By uniting to help other groups take steps towards their own goals, the civil rights movement demonstrated that these struggles are shared and come from a common source. As Dr. King said, “It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.”

The disability community is a unique one, because a person with a disability can be any race, gender, age, or sexuality. “Person with a disability” is the only group that anybody can join at any time, which is one reason it is so vital for everyone, including and especially people without any disability, to ensure equal access and treatment for people with disabilities. When a person with a disability is also a racial minority or a member of some other marginalized group, their struggle can be compounded, and so in a very real way, ensuring the equal rights and treatment of people of people with disabilities also helps the social movement towards the equal rights and treatment of all. Dr. King’s life and work are inspirational to anyone struggling for justice, and celebrating his legacy involves continuing to move our society towards justice.

Celebrating the Holidays with Accessibility in Mind

Even those of us who look forward to the holidays as a time to celebrate with friends and family know that this time of year can be very complicated. Relationships, diets, traditions, and finances are just a few things that need to be juggled, and for people with disabilities, this can be even more difficult.

If you’re hosting or helping put on any festivities, there are a few things you can keep in mind to make sure that everyone who attends, whether they have a disability or not, will feel known, valued, and included:

  • Think about how people will move around the event! Are there any physical barriers that could affect someone with a disability involving their mobility? Look at the paths you expect guests to take from the entrance to the food, to the gifts, to the restrooms. Are spaces wide enough for a wheelchair or someone using a cane or walker? Are there any trip hazards such as tall rugs or power cords? Often, addressing these obstacles can be as easy as moving furniture over a few inches.
  • Especially when the weather outside is frightful, temperature regulation can be challenging. One way to make guests comfortable is to have a stack of blankets available so that they can help themselves if it’s too cold. This is good hosting in general; disability or not, most people love being cozy in the winter!
  • If you’re serving alcoholic drinks, consider offering non-alcoholic versions such as mocktails. Often alcohol can negatively interact with medications, so providing the option to have a fun holiday drink that won’t have any unexpected effects will make your gathering memorable. Examples could be eggnog with the liquor left out, or spiced cider alongside mulled wine.

The possibilities are endless!

Depending on the specifics of your plans, there are all kinds of ways to spread holiday cheer by making your celebrations more accessible for everyone. If there’s someone you have in mind who may have accessibility needs that you’re not sure about, just ask them!

Letting someone with a disability know that you’re thinking about them and that you want them to be able to enjoy themselves fully is a gift at any time of year!

Healthcare equity is still needed for people with disabilities

A group of patients in a hospital hallway sitting in wheelchairs and benches.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in the U.S. more than 30 years ago. One of its requirements is for health care providers, from hospitals to doctors and nurses, to ensure full and equal access to every patient, regardless of disability. Unfortunately, there is still work to be done to achieve this. People with disabilities of all types have reported difficulties in accessing health care. An article published last month in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/19/health/doctors-patients-disabilities.html) showcased a recent study from Northwestern University which suggests that some doctors and their clinics are discriminating against patients with disabilities by choosing not to provide them with care.

The study gathered doctors in focus groups to get their thoughts about patients with disabilities, and a shocking number of them expressed discomfort or even hostility towards treating patients with disabilities. When asked if they viewed the ADA as beneficial, many of the doctors were either neutral about this or adversarial, with one saying that the ADA works “against physicians.” They expressed concern over lawsuits from people with disabilities and some doctors have found it easier to just not see those patients.

This may be done by strategically finding ways to avoid scheduling appointments, such as by claiming that they are not taking new clients or telling patients with disabilities that they need a more specialized amount of care than a general practitioner can provide.

The authors of the study theorized a possible cause of this behavior could be a general lack of awareness and exposure to people with disabilities. Some of the doctors interviewed seemed genuinely unsure whether they would be able to provide the care needed. This was often attributed to a lack of familiarity with people with disabilities, with some stating they were doubtful they would be able to provide appropriate accommodations.

To read the study and the author’s conclusions and recommendations: https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2022.00475

Nearly one in five Americans has a disability of some kind, making it essential for doctors and health care providers to be able to provide them the same level of care as anyone else. If you have a disability, make sure you know your rights so you can advocate for yourself. Remember, people without disabilities can and should advocate for accommodations and access for everyone. When everyone in our society is able to receive the healthcare they need to live fulfilling lives, it makes all of us stronger and healthier.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

A Black woman seated in front of an open laptop computer makes the ASL sign for "help."

October is one of the most important months for disability awareness in the United States, being the month designated for awareness of more than a dozen different impairments and disabling conditions.

Some of these such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, Down syndrome, and learning disabilities may be familiar and some, such as Dysautonomia, Raynaud syndrome, and selective mutism, may not be. However, they are all equally deserving of attention as well as equity in access to accommodations, treatment, and support.

You can find a full calendar of disability-related dates, anniversaries, and celebrations at this link. The broadest awareness effort of the month, however, is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).

In the U.S., Congress has designated October as NDEAM in order to “acknowledge the contributions to the nation’s economy made by workers with disabilities, current and past.”

The declaration was developed out of a 1945 Act of Congress, which declared the first week of October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, “physically” was removed from the week’s name to recognize additional kinds of disabilities. In 1988, the week was expanded into span the entire month of October, and became NDEAM.

The right to work, and be paid fairly for that work, has been an ongoing struggle for many groups of people in the U.S., and people with disabilities are no exception. There remains a lingering misconception or stereotype that people with disabilities are not able to work and participate in society, and in some states, workplaces can still legally pay disabled employees less than minimum wage.

Fortunately, Colorado is phasing this program out and, by 2025, employers will be prohibited from paying an employee with a disability a subminimum wage.

People with disabilities can make essential contributions in all areas of life, and the workplace is no exception.

At The Independence Center, our mission is to support people with disabilities as they live independently and participate in life as fully as they wish. Being paid for work is essential to this. The Independence Center is proud to recognize and share information about National Disability Employment Awareness Month in order to help everyone in our community be known, valued, and included wherever they go.

Top 10 Ways to Make Your Classroom More Accessible

August means the start of a new school year! For teachers, this is a perfect time to consider Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This approach structures learning to meet the needs of every student in the classroom.

Check out our top 10 suggestions to make the classroom a more inclusive environment.

  1. Allot time in class for students to work on homework assignments with other students.
  2. Freely offer and make available feedback during both in-class work and tests.
  3. Make sure that students have the time to complete tests in class, with enough extra to doublecheck work and make necessary adjustments from your feedback.
  4. Provide alternative options for lessons and content, like Khan Academy for math or Sparknotes for English and reading comprehension. Try to only use videos with captioning available; besides the obvious benefits for students with hearing issues, captioning aids in comprehension across the board for all students.
  5. Record lessons and make them available both as an audio file and as a transcription with a speech-to-text program for easy playback for students working at home.
  6. When teaching, consider providing a note-taking template or writing notes on the board. These notes should be simple for students to write down and understand both in and out of the classroom. (We suggest Cornell notes, which provide excellent structure and organization of information.)
  7. Allow students to choose where they sit. Only intervene when necessary to prevent disruptive behavior or to move students with specific accommodations to where they can best succeed. For example, some students may find that they work best when they have the freedom to get up, stand, stretch, or fidget. In that case, those students may find the back of the room most beneficial.
  8. Outside of covering the material, consider taking the time to help students learn effective study and note-taking methods to help them excel in all aspects of education.
  9. Place a weekly calendar in a high visibility point in the classroom with due dates and daily lesson plans. This will not only help students stay on track with homework but will also keep them from being surprised by a quiz, test, or other assignment.
  10. Physical accommodations are vital in reducing literal barriers to learning in the classroom. We recommend leaving wide walkways and paths that can accommodate a variety of mobility disabilities. Even if you don’t currently have any students with mobility disabilities, students may develop them or have parents that already do.

To learn more and get more helpful tips and info about UDL, we suggest checking out these websites:

Common Classroom Accommodations and Modifications | Understood

How Teachers Can Make Their Classrooms More Accessible for Students with Disabilities | American University

UDL: The UDL Guidelines (cast.org)

Three students write at their desks. The boy in the front is sitting in a wheelchair.