CEO Corner: Thank You to Our Staff

Photo of Patricia Yeager, CEO of The ICLate last year, The Independence Center (The IC) was named one of The Gazette’s “Best Workplaces” for 2020. This award is especially meaningful to me because it comes directly from our staff. Unbeknownst to me, a number of employees nominated The IC for the award. Once the nomination was official, almost 50% of our Home Health, Independent Living, and Administrative staff members then completed a lengthy survey about our work environment. It speaks volumes about the good will staff members have toward The IC that they would take the time and care enough to do this.

With around 330 employees, The IC was one of several “best workplaces” in the Extra-Large Companies category.  Clearly, The IC is no longer a small, unknown nonprofit in Colorado Springs.  Since 2011 we have doubled our employees and our revenues, purchased a second building, and now have satellite offices (for traveling staff) across our service area.  New programs have sprung up, while others have been phased out. Today, we are considered a national model for other Centers for Independent Living throughout the country. Through all the changes, our staff has been the backbone of what we do.  Without them, people with disabilities would not receive the services, supports, and advocacy that help ensure their participation and visibility in our local community.

The leadership at The IC understands that change and growth can have both a positive and negative effect on morale. So, we do our best to create an atmosphere of appreciation and support for our staff. We provide training, opportunities for creative thinking, and a comfortable, healthy space (even virtually) for staff members and consumers alike. Most importantly, we work to promote an environment that assumes positive intent and generates trust and respect. We believe if staff have the tools, knowledge, and support they need, our consumers and their families will benefit by getting the care and services they need to move closer to their goals.

I am so proud of our staff and feel blessed to be part of a group who is passionate about the work they do. Time and again, I have heard employees say they feel lucky to have jobs where they can make a difference in the lives of others. I say that the Pikes Peak Region is lucky to have such a wonderful team working hard every day, whether in person or virtually, to make sure that our community of people with disabilities can create the lives they want.

To the staff – past, present, and future – thank you for building the strong foundation that allows this organization to serve the people that we do with such love and success.

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Happy Trails: Making the City’s Open Spaces More Accessible

Drew Wills loves a challenge. On any given day, you can find the Colorado Springs attorney on a mountain biking trail in Stratton Open Space, attacking steep climbs and tackling technical tracks. But unlike most of the other riders on the trail, Drew pedals with his hands while flying down hills headfirst.

A lifelong cyclist and outdoor athlete, Drew began handcycling after a skiing accident left him with paraplegia. A fierce competitor, it didn’t take long for him to make a name for himself in on- and off-road cycling events. He was the only handcyclist to enter and complete the initial Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb from Manitou Springs, and the first to complete the 110-mile Tour de Steamboat, the Durango-to-Silverton Iron Horse, and the Bob Cook Memorial Hill Climb, which starts in Idaho Springs and ends at the top of Mount Evans. Along the way, he’s set numerous records and won a number of off-road world championships.

But these days, he says he’s “kind of over” his own individual accomplishments being in the spotlight. In the last several years, his priority has become breaking down literal and figurative barriers for himself and others with disabilities. A former board member for The Independence Center, he is passionate about helping other people who use wheelchairs stay healthy and fit and live more independently.

Image of Drew sitting on handbike on trail
Photo courtesy Jeanie Wills

Image courtesy Jeanie Wills

It’s not surprising, then, that he took quick action when he arrived one day for a ride and found his usual trail being rebuilt. After speaking to the trail volunteers, he learned that the trail was being redesigned for a very good reason; it would help prevent erosion. “Unfortunately, the new trail they were creating was on severe side slope,” says Drew. “The way my handcycle is configured, my wheels are three feet apart. So if the trail is not wide enough, it’ll tip me over.”

The volunteers put Drew in touch with Dan Allen, trail project specialist with the City of Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department. After years spent as both a lawyer and a disability advocate, Drew prepared himself to be confronted by miles of red tape, bureaucracy, and excuses. But Dan was friendly and responsive, and offered to meet Drew at the trailhead to talk.

Once Dan saw the handcycle, he immediately understood the issue. By the end of their meeting, Dan told Drew that they would fix the trail so that it would accommodate him and other handcyclists. “And I’ll be darned if they didn’t start on it the very next day,” says Drew.

For his part, Dan saw this as a learning opportunity.

“I wasn’t quite sure what a handcycle was or what it was capable of so, what I learned from that experience, we’re definitely applying to our trail design,” he told news station KRDO in an interview about the project. “It was a few extra hours of work but I feel like, we want to make sure all members of the community are welcome and out here enjoying our open spaces.”

Dan and his team not only used what they learned to redesign the trails at Stratton Open Space, they are working to improve accessibility at several other trails at parks around the city, including Red Rocks Open Space. The wider trails not only benefit people with disabilities, they also ensure that the community’s natural areas can be enjoyed by everyone from serious mountain bikers to parents pushing strollers.

“This has been the best example of somebody responding immediately and going the extra mile to make it work,” Drew says. “They could have, as I have experienced in the past, had somebody say, we don’t have the money for that or it’s not feasible or this is all planned and we can’t change it now. But that just didn’t happen. It was just a great example of the way things ought to be.”

Interested in trying out a handcycle for yourself? Many of Colorado’s ski resorts offer adaptive winter and summer recreation opportunities. Check out Crested Butte’s Adaptive Sports Center, the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, or Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS).

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Partnership with County Ensures Equal Access to Vaccine Resources

Local, state, and federal governments are working quickly to get the COVID-19 vaccine to as many people as possible. El Paso County Public Health (EPCPH) is no exception. As of April 13, 2021, almost 200,000 residents aged 16 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the County’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard.

However, the message can be slower and more difficult to get out to certain segments of the population than others. For people with disabilities, this can be because of uncertainty about how to get the vaccine, whether the vaccine location will be able to accommodate them, and whether American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters will be available.

To help address these concerns, The Independence Center reached out to EPCPH about creating and distributing a fully accessible video with vaccination information. Michelle Hewitt, Public Health Information Officer for EPCPH, immediately understood the value of the project and signed on to help produce the video.

“El Paso County Public Health is committed to increasing equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by reducing barriers such as language, technology, transportation and geography,” notes Hewitt. “It’s imperative that everyone has access to the resources and facts they need to make an informed decision, and to make it as easy as possible to get connected to a vaccine provider.”

With the County onboard, The IC enlisted the help of Amelia Dall, a Deaf archeologist who also provides consulting services, video production, and ASL translation. Dall signed, filmed, edited, and captioned the video, which was then sent to Jennifer Schreuder, City of Colorado Springs Communications Specialist, for voiceover work. The completed video resides on EPCPH’s Webinars and Education webpage, as well as The IC’s COVID-19 resource page.

In addition to the video, EPCPH has also added an ASL interpreter icon next to clinics that have Video Remote Interpreting so Deaf individuals can easily find which clinics can accommodate them.

“We are so thankful for this valuable partnership with EPCPH,” says Patricia Yeager, CEO of The IC. “Their willingness to collaborate with us on this project ensures that all members of our community have equal access to the vital health care they need to keep themselves and others safe.”

You can view the video below or by visiting our YouTube page.

To learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine and where you can get vaccinated, visit elpasocountyhealth.org.

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Accessible Masks: The Difference Is Clear

Imagine going to bed one night and waking up in a world in which you can’t understand anyone. To make matters worse, you find it impossible to tell if othersTwo women wearing clear masks sit at a desk. are trying to communicate with you in the first place.  It may sound far-fetched, but this has been the reality for countless d/Deaf and hard of hearing (DHOH) individuals since mask mandates went into effect due to the pandemic.

Face coverings are an essential tool to help contain the spread of coronavirus. However, traditional masks obscure lip and facial movements, making communication difficult for people who are DHOH or who have sensory disabilities like autism. Because 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal, even individuals without hearing loss can struggle to understand each other with masks on.

For Rebecca Hull, who is Deaf, the constant struggle to communicate with others has made the most mundane tasks frustrating and exhausting.

“Think about interacting with the cashier at the grocery store,” she says. “As a Deaf person, if I don’t see the cashier’s lips moving, how am I to know they are asking me questions?”

Fortunately, Rebecca is also one of The IC’s Outreach Specialists and a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID). Thanks to her unique skillset, she was perfectly positioned to advocate for and implement an initiative to address this issue.

“Real change occurs when we take the time to educate that disability is not the problem. Instead, it is the lack of accessible or alternative resources that creates a barrier,” she notes. “The example of masks during a pandemic illustrates this point. We can provide an accessible alternative to the mainstream option.”

As Rebecca saw it, one alternative was to provide masks with clear windows to DHOH individuals or those who regularly interact with them, like teachers and health care workers. Leadership at The IC quickly approved the project and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund generously provided a grant to purchase two different types of masks and a number of face shields.

The response from the community was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Over 2,000 masks and face shields were requested and distributed.

“The excitement and appreciation we felt from our community has been enormous,” says Michele Chamberlain, Independent Living Manager at The IC.  “Making a difference in our community is why we are here.  We did that with this project.”

Kimberly Kieffer has seen firsthand the difference the masks have made. A school counselor at Academy Endeavor Elementary, Kimberly says the masks have been a gamechanger for the hard of hearing students she works with. “It’s been a challenge, all school year, to find a mask that is safe, fits well enough for me to teach/converse, and allows my students to see my lips,” she observes. “These masks are being used with the population for which they are intended and very appreciated.”

These are the kinds of success stories that Rebecca hopes will lead to more awareness surrounding the need for accessibility, both now and when the pandemic is over.

“The goal of this project was to promote awareness on how we can effectively communicate without compromising safety during a pandemic,” she says. “Though we’re a year into the pandemic, this is a great time to start this conversation. Hopefully, this will encourage more doctors and nurses to utilize clear mask options to communicate with their patients long after COVID-19 cases decline.”

Although the giveaway has ended, there are a number of resources available to purchase accessible masks, including the Rafi Nova Smile Mask (reusable) and ClearMask (disposable).

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Housing Q&A

Home. It’s a word that means different things to different people. Safety. Security. Stability. Comfort. A home is more than just four walls and a roof. It’s the place where we start and end our days. Where we prepare our meals and celebrate holidays. Where we make memories.

The staff who work in The IC’s Housing Department understand the positive impact having a home can have on one’s life. By assisting individuals in finding a place to live, they help unlock the door to a brighter future.

The Housing team is made up of four dedicated Housing Coordinators – Sara Callender, Nicole Faucher, Daveda Eisenstein, and Grant Langdon. Recently, we sat down with Sara and Nicole to find out more about what they do and how they help others achieve greater independence through housing.

What is the role of a Housing Coordinator at The IC?

Sara Callender (SC): People often think we’re case managers but we’re not. As Housing Coordinators, we typically coordinate with other agencies and partners. These agencies work directly with individuals to help them fill out an application to get housing vouchers. Once they’ve been determined to be eligible for a voucher, they come to us and we help them through the process of finding a place to live.

Nicole Faucher (NF): We also field many calls from people coming to Colorado Springs. They don’t have vouchers but we are able to share our resources and other information that can help them find housing.

What should someone with a housing voucher expect when they reach out to The IC?

SC: First, we meet with them to do a briefing and to do all the necessary paperwork to accept the voucher. Then, we give them the voucher, along with housing resources to help them look for a home. Once they find a home, we’ll work with the landlord to determine that it’s within the payment standard of the voucher.

Before the pandemic, we would go out and do an inspection because it has to pass certain requirements from the State. Right now, we’re asking individuals to complete and return paperwork that they have inspected the unit. Then they sign the lease and move in!

Once a year, we meet with them to determine that they are still eligible for their voucher. During that year, we remind them that if their income changes, they need to let us know because their rent amount is determined by their income.

So The IC doesn’t find a place for them?

SC: That’s one of the biggest misconceptions. We don’t do it for you. We give you the tools to find a place to live. You get to pick where you want to live, as long as it falls within the payment standard.

What if someone needs a place that’s outside the payment standard?

NF: People with disabilities can request a reasonable accommodation for a higher payment standard so they can live where they want to live and how they want to live. If they want to do that, we educate and support them and help them present a reasonable accommodation request to the State for review. Sometimes it gets bounced back and we tweak it a bit. But more often than not, reasonable accommodations are approved.

Sometimes it’s about time rather than money. Vouchers are time-sensitive. They get 120 days to find a place and then the vouchers expire. So if they get close to the 120 days and they haven’t found anything, they need to do a reasonable accommodation to ask for more time.

Can anyone work with The IC’s Housing program or do you just work with people with disabilities?

SC: The majority of our voucher holders have a disability. But we do work with some people who don’t have a disability, or someone in their family might have a disability but they might not be the head of household.

The IC’s Housing Department operates on the “housing first” philosophy. Tell us a little about that.

NF: “Housing first” means that once you have a home and all that goes with that – heat, water, a bed – you can then move forward and really improve your life. You can get a job now because you’ve slept well, you can take a shower, you have a refrigerator to put your food in. You can just really begin to enjoy your life no matter what happened prior to that. It’s such a big part of becoming independent.

Housing is a win-win. It’s a win for families and individuals, obviously. But it’s a win for the community, too, to have people in homes.

What is your favorite part of your job?

NF: Being part of the process of helping someone find a home makes me so happy. I am always so excited to share information with people. I feel like we empower them and it’s so inspiring.

SC: Back in the good old days before COVID, I loved to sit with people and do a briefing in person. I would just ask them to talk about themselves and ask them about their hopes and dreams. To introduce them to the program and let them know that they’re going to pick their own home, cook their own meals, and sleep in their own bed – it’s pretty exciting.

If you are looking for housing resources in the area, call 719-471-8181 to speak to someone in The IC’s Housing Department.

Photo of keys in the lock of a door

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Removing Barriers, One Vote at a Time

“My vote is my voice…and the voice of all who struggled so that I may have my voice.” – Lydia Obasi

The disability community in this country has a long history of advocating for change. From widescale protests to the simple act of asking for accommodations, people with disabilities have learned that advocacy is the key to creating a better world for themselves and others.

One of the best advocacy tools we have is our right to vote, but exercising that right hasn’t always been easy. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that voters with disabilities were granted the affirmative right to have necessary assistance in voting from a person of the voter’s choice. Since then, a number of pieces of legislations – including the Americans with Disabilities Act – have granted federal voting protections to those in the disability community.

While widespread accessibility in voting is becoming more commonplace, uncertainty about available accommodations can discourage those with disabilities from casting their votes. To help address this concern, The IC opened up its building as a Voter Polling and Service Center (VPSC) in last year’s general election. Because the building is fully accessible, The IC was able to accommodate people with all types of disabilities. Like other VPSCs in El Paso County, The IC had an ADA-accessible voting machine as well as an onsite ballot drop box. For those unable to make the trip – or uncomfortable doing so due to the pandemic – several of The IC’s staff volunteered their time to pick up completed ballots and deposit them in the drop box. In total, 300 people cast their votes at The IC.

“The Independence Center was thrilled to be able to serve our community by providing a fully accessible building for community members to exercise their vote,” said Deb Walker, The IC’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, who helped organize the effort. “As part of our commitment to civil rights for people with disabilities, we were proud to work with the County to ensure that all people can vote without barriers.”

To learn more about how to use self- and systems-advocacy to effect change in your own life, call The IC at 719-471-8181.

Image of woman at voting machine

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