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College to Career Transitions Resources: Access Living

Hadley Kronick, one of the 2022 Dinah F.B. Cohen Fellows, interviewed Access Learning about the resources their organization offers to disabled people within Chicago. The below article is written by them.

Growing up I learned that self-advocacy was a critical skill to help me live the life I wanted. The Epilepsy Foundation was the organization that helped me to learn self-advocacy. From this experience I knew I wanted others to have the opportunity to learn the same skill set. So when I had a chance to connect with organizations that can offer that type of impact on other young adults, I welcomed the opportunity to interview one of the flagship Centers for Independent Living (CIL) in the nation.

If you aren’t familiar with CILs, they offer support with community living and independence for people with disabilities in communities across the nation. CILs are based in the belief that all people can live with dignity, make their own choices, and participate fully in society. The CIL programs provide tools, resources, and support for integrating people with disabilities fully into their communities to promote equal opportunities, self-determination, and respect. 

I met with Katie Blank from Access Living, a CIL serving the City of Chicago to learn how a CIL functions and what type of programs you can find at a CIL. Though the exact programs will differ from location to location they highlight what information you should be aware of when learning how to live independently. Katie has been with Access Living for 13 years and is in charge of the youth programs. 

Please describe your organization and signature transition support programs/services.

Access Living challenges stereotypes, protects civil rights, and champions social reforms. We are located in Chicago and have a long history of doing what it takes to make sure people with disabilities can live the lives they choose. Access Living is the CIL that serves the City of Chicago. That means we are a local, disability consumer‑controlled, cross‑disability, nonresidential, private nonprofit. As a CIL, we believe in dignity, community integration, civil rights, and equal access for all people with disabilities. Our 5 core services are advocacy, independent living skills, transition support, peer support, and information/referral. Our vision is a world free from barriers and discrimination – where disability is a respected and natural part of the human experience and people with disabilities are included and valued. Access Living is located in Chicago, IL and you can access us through our website that is divided into services and if we don’t have it we’ll find who does! 

We work alongside people with all kinds of disabilities including intellectual, psychiatric, physical, and sensory disabilities. All of our programs and services revolve around one central belief: that people with disabilities have the right to live the lives they choose for  themselves, in an accessible, integrated world. The people who work here and with whom we partner with reflects the diversity of the broader disability population in Chicago. 

Within our Youth Programs we have several programs including; Fast Track, Reaching Our Dreams, YIELD the Power Workshops , and Youth Mentoring. Many of these programs are very curriculum based and we go into the classroom to teach about interviews, communication, resumes, accommodations, disability awareness, and post-secondary ed options. We want to encourage youths to consider all the different options. We also include disability awareness and history in all of our programs. Being able to acknowledge your disability first and then knowing they can access accommodations is crucial when teaching youths about career options. This helps youth feel comfortable learning how to ask for what they need. 

The Fast Track Program is the main transition program. We also have the Youth Mentoring Program which works on goals that are related to the future. There is also the Financial Literacy Program which works with youth and others. Though it is not obviously a transition-focused program, it is important to independent living. 

What are key experiences that assist young people in accessing quality and impactful transition support? 

The most important thing we focus on is disability history and awareness. When many disabled people seek independence, it can be difficult. So learning about disability history and awareness can lead to acceptance which later helps with independence. We also educate them on their future. We know from experience it is difficult to be aware of what the options are and even rarer it is to get this information spelled out for you. Individualized Education Plans (or IEPs) often don’t get addressed until senior year so having it offered earlier exposes students so it’s not as overwhelming. 

What lessons or tips do you have to share with other service providers to learn your innovative ways?

Get to know the students! Often programs want to follow a specific plan instead of modifying for a wide range of learning styles. This leads to many students not being able to truly grasp the concepts taught. The consumer should always be the focus; here the consumers are the youth. 

Does your program/organization include elements of self-advocacy, self-determination, or mentoring? If so please describe the significance of this content for the participants.

Access Living offers multiple opportunities and programs for youth with disabilities to learn, grow, build community, and prepare for their futures. The Disability Justice Mentoring Collective (DJMC) is an award-winning mentoring program that pairs disabled young people with adult mentors. Together, mentoring pairs work on tasks such as: setting goals, problem-solving, building community, taking public transit, and acquiring independent living skills. The three in-school programs (YIELD the Power Workshops, Fast Track, and Reaching Our Dreams) also highlight self-advocacy and leadership. This is important because, as stated earlier, it helps youth to become comfortable with themselves and learn what exists so that in the future issues like asking for accommodations, navigating dealing with a disability, and just general navigation of the workplace is not overwhelming or un-understandable. 

What is a key attribute your programming offers to help young people find community? Describe how relationship building is centered in your model. 

In the YIELD program, we talk a lot about empowering youth, being proud of who you are, how to use first-person language, the disability community, and how advocacy works and its importance. We also talk to a lot of different groups so their voices can be heard. The Youth Mentoring program often has outside organizations come in to talk about a lot of topics including; mental health, different backgrounds, different religious/cultural holidays, and the LGBTQ+ community thus educating students on a wide range of topics. This helps us highlight intersectionality as well. 

This brings me to our next question: how does your organization center multiple-marginalized populations? Does your organization intentionally make space for intersectional identities?

This is something that we are working on improving. Similar to most history that is taught, the disability history movement is often taught as a very white, male movement. So we’ve modified lessons to be more inclusive and we hope to continue to expand them. 

Does your organization help participants learn about civil rights and disability rights laws? 

Yes! This was mentioned earlier but all of our programs help participants learn about disability history and awareness. We also offer legal services to help the disabled community within Chicago with any specific questions regarding disability rights laws. 

Do you feel you are part of a larger pipeline helping youth/young adults move to succeed in future careers? 

Yes, because these services are very career focused. Though we only reach about 50/900 schools in the Chicago area alone, it reaches youth that don’t have access to these types of mentoring programs. We hope to keep expanding our reach! 

What else would you like to share?  And how does someone connect with their CIL to get started? 

We also offer housing support, Personal Assistant training, services to move youth out of nursing facilities, and giving general support in those transitions. The wide range of categories connecting to a wide range of organizations that Access Living offers. Though these specific programs are only offered to the Chicago area, through the ILRU Directory of CILs and Associations you can find your local office! You can also find the National Council on Independent Living information on their website or find NCIL on Facebook All CILs will provide independent living services for people with disabilities. CILs are at the core of ACL’s independent living programs and are a crucial resource for people with disabilities! 

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