CILs are consumer-driven, private, nonprofit organizations that advocate for people with disabilities and offer services to people with disabilities as peers.
Type in “disability awareness” on a search engine and one uncovers a wealth of programs and activities offered by schools, agencies and consultants to bring about a greater understanding of living with a disability. Many programs are for children, while others are aimed at employers or co-workers. Still other programs cover “disability etiquette and how to interact with people with disabilities. For Centers for Independent Living (CILs) in New Jersey, raising awareness for the community of people with disabilities has always been a part of the Independent Living Movement since the 1970s. CILs are consumer-driven, private, nonprofit organizations that advocate for people with disabilities and offer services to people with disabilities as peers.
The advocacy can be on a systems level, such as advocating for more accessible affordable housing, or it can trickle down to the individual level, such as getting a ramp built to make a house accessible. These are routine issues for CILs in New Jersey. “In each case, the advocacy raises the awareness of the needs of people with disabilities by its very nature,” said Scott Elliott, executive director of the Progressive Center for Independent Living that serves Mercer and Hunterdon Counties.
“A part of advocacy is increasing the public’s understanding of what we need as people with disabilities,” continued Elliott who also chairs the NJ Association of Centers for Independent Living (NJACIL).
How CILs Raise Awareness
Carole Tonks agrees and says that most of the programs offered by the Alliance Center for Independence (ACI) have an element of disability awareness built in. “Most of our programs educate people about some aspect of living with a disability,” said Tonks, the executive director of ACI which serves Middlesex, Somerset, and Union Counties. “Our belly-dancing program is mostly recreational and partly wellness, but when the group performs in public, it raises everyone’s awareness that people with disabilities have talents, skills, and the self-confidence to perform in public That may open someone’s mind to view disability in a different way.”
Other New Jersey CILs have programs primarily aimed at raising awareness. MOCEANS CIL has a program named Disability Aware Through Education (DATE). As their unique name indicates, MOCEANS CIL serves Monmouth and Ocean Counties.
“The goal of DATE is to bring disability awareness to schools, businesses and organizations to help people of all ages interact positively with children and adults with disabilities, said Joanne
M. Goff, MOCEANS CIL’s executive director. “DATE speakers are people with a disability who speak on a wide range of topics and issues. Through DATE we bring disability awareness to over 1,000 students Grades 3 through 5 each year.”
Disability Awareness and Employers
DIAL, Inc., the oldest CIL in New Jersey, does some of its awareness work through Job Fairs reaching out to potential employers. DIAL serves Essex and Passaic Counties, with a particular focus on the City of Newark, the state’s largest city. “Staff participated in two Job Fairs so far in 2014,” said John Petix, Jr., Executive Director of DIAL. “One was held at Passaic County Community College and the other at William Paterson University. Our staff prepared, distributed, and briefly explained employment packets to all vendors. These explained the benefits and tax incentives for hiring people with disabilities.”
All of the New Jersey Centers have received Cornell University’s “train-the trainer” training and certification. This certification enables the CILs to offer workshops on various topics such as the
ADA. In fact, Resources for Independent Living (RIL), serving Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties, answers questions about the ADA, four days a week for Cornell University’s National ADA hotline for Federal Region II. This area includes New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. “The Cornell piece is probably our most requested workshop,” said Lisa Killion-Smith, Executive Director of RIL. “Also, our youth programs all have disability awareness piece in the beginning.”
“Outside the Box”
The Progressive Center has specialized in bringing greater disability awareness to emergency first responders. They have created various curriculums and training courses to bridge the information void between people with disabilities and first responders. Their largest program is Adaptive Equipment Demonstration, where people with disabilities train first responders about power wheelchairs, lift-equipped vehicles, and how to rescue people in wheelchairs from modified vans without needlessly destroying expensive equipment. “Firefighters are shocked at the costs of this equipment and how hard it is to replace,” said Elliott. “We think that we are the only CIL in the nation to do this type of awareness training.” ACI Center also supports and coordinates the New Jersey Disability Pride Parade. The Parade was actually the brainchild of two ACI consumers who were in an ACI youth group at the time. The two young men attended the National Youth Leadership Network Convention where they saw a presentation about Chicago’s Disability Pride Parade. Inspired, the two were determined to bring a similar event to
New Jersey “devoted to celebrating disability as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity.” The Parade is entering its fourth year this month. Centers for Independent Living help individuals reach their personal best potential. This is aided as CILs raise awareness of disability in work, emergency preparedness, and recreation.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Norman A. Smith has served five years as Chair of the NJ Statewide Independent Living Council. He is the co-founder and Associate Executive Director of Project Freedom Inc., a non-profit agency that develops and operates affordable and barrier-free apartments for people with disabilities. In addition, Smith has written numerous articles for Able Newspaper, including articles on emergency preparedness and people with disabilities.