Thursday, November 13, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Overcoming Barriers To An
Inclusive Society


Our nation is currently celebrating and fundamentally changing its attitude with respect to election to public office. Race and gender
barriers are no longer obstacles in our society to achieving individual greatness. But there are still individuals who face tremendous obstacles
in their pursuit of success.

Those of our neighbors who are handicapped face daily struggles. And the recent economic setbacks, increases in energy costs, and cutbacks
in services and jobs, have affected this group of individuals more dramatically as many of whom live on fixed incomes. Fortunately,
there are many agencies in our area committed to helping our disabled neighbors.

The Guardian recently attended a function held by Westchester Disabled on the Move, an organization that seeks to “empower people with
disabilities to control their own lives” and advocates for their civil rights and a “barrier free society”. According to their own mission
statement, Westchester Disabled on the Move, Inc. is staffed and governed primarily by people with disabilities. The programs
and services of WDOMI are free to consumers with disabilities and their families. WDOMI does not discriminate based on age, sex,
disability, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion”.

The organization offers many services to their clients:

• Benefits and systems advocacy: their staff will assist in obtaining Social Security Disability, Supplemental Security Income, Medicare,
Medicaid, public assistance, and obtaining employment;

• Disability Awareness Program: Outreach to schools and businesses and other organizations to educate our communities about the rights,
needs, and experiences of people with disabilities;

• Housing Option Program: The staff assists disabled individuals with finding and maintaining affordable, accessible housing and provides information on their housing rights, options, rental interviews, negotiations, modifications to their homes, and eviction prevention services;

• Advocacy and Architectural Barriers Consultation Program: The staff accesses accessibility in homes, workplaces, and public places.
WDOMI also works to remove barriers in our communities by providing technical advice, education, negotiation and legal action when
required;

• Independent Living Transition Program: This is a unique program with Yonkers schools to assist students as they transition to higher
education, employment training and independent living. The goal of this program is to enable each participant to become a contributing
member of our society;

• Information and Referral: The WDOMI staff assists customers in identifying the appropriate government or other agency to address
their specific needs and requirements;

• Independent Living Skills Peer Counseling: The agency provides both individual and group support counseling to assist clients in their
coping and advocacy skills. The agency offers advice on financial management, employment issues, family roles, relationships, and leisure
activities.

Throughout the years, the Westchester Disabled on the Move, Inc. has been fortunate to have many local residents provide strong advocacy
and assistance on their behalf. Every year, during National Disabilities Awareness Month in October, WDOMI honors those individuals for their efforts with a “Spirit of Independence” Award. Past honorees were New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, New York State Senator Nick Spano, MG Power company, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, Westchester County Legislator Lois Bronz, and New York
State Assemblyman Michael Spano.

According to Ms. Claudia Slater, the Public Affairs and Developmental Director for WDOMI, “the concept of the Spirit Of Independent Award, is a celebration of the abilities and accomplishments of people who, through their jobs and passion, are part of the process of removing barriers in our society. They really believe that everybody has an ability and can be included”.

Slater noted that “What we do is truly unique so we believe in recognizing those individuals who advocate for the removal of the barriers in our society. And once people attend our events and understand what we do, the barriers become less set in cement, perceptions change and those barriers melt”.

WDOMI feels strongly about honoring their advocates. Each year, they also offer a Maureen Keating Tsuchiya award in honor of one of
the disabled community’s strongest advocates. The late Ms. Tsuchiya contracted polio from the vaccine in the 1950’s and became
a grassroots advocate on behalf of all disabled individuals in our area. WDOMI honored her memory at their recent event noting that although
Ms. Tsuchiya was a life-long Democrat, she willingly crossed party lines to “dedicate her tireless efforts to disability issues”. The past honorees of the “Spirit of Independence” award are further evidence that this issue surpasses political parties and agendas.

The current honorees of both awards included a community advocate on disability and youth services, Ms. Elizabeth Mark, and an ESOl instructor and volunteer for Literacy Volunteers, Ms. Jennie Mosquera. Ms. Mark has served on many committees; as the Chair of
the Westchester County Council for the Disabled, and is also involved with the Westchester Disability Advocacy Partnership. Ms. Mosquera is the Coordinator of the Learning Center in Yonkers, working with students who have suspected or diagnosed learning disabilities.
In addressing recent events, Melvin Tanzman, the Executive Director of WDOMI, noted that “hard times affect us all, but particularly
those who can least afford it”. Mr. Tanzman also noted that New York State has already cut funding by 8% while the needs for these services in our communities are growing.

Recently, 150 individuals with disabilities traveled to Albany to meet with Governor Paterson to protest cuts for independent living centers
and home care. The advocates fear that these cutbacks will force people with disabilities into institutions. According to a report by the
“New York Able”, this meeting marked the first time in New York that a governor met with the disabled advocates in person, rather
than passing them over to aides or support staff. Governor Paterson is the first legally blind Governor of any state and once served as a Board member of the Harlem Independent Living Center. The disabled community is hopeful that our Governor will address their needs
during the state’s budget crises and that they can continue to pursue the independence they seek.

Just as Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama have shown women and minorities that they have an equal opportunity to reach for, and obtain, the highest offices in our nation, so, too, has Governor Paterson for people with disabilities. According to WDOMI, “Governor
David Paterson has shown the country that people with disabilities can lead full and productive lives. Not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has a person with a self evident disability been governor. It is about time that New York has another governor with a disability. Especially considering that people with disabilities make up about one-fifth of the population”.

Addressing the current joblessness in our economy, WDOMI notes “as unacceptable as the 5.5% unemployment rate among the population seems to be, the seventy percent (70%) unemployment rate among the people with disabilities is disgraceful”.

As our nation breaks down some barriers, other barriers remain, preventing a significant portion of our neighbors from being fully inclusive
members of our society. While the recent advances for women and minorities in our nation have been significant, we cannot lose sight of
those who are not fully included.

Senator Clinton may have successfully made “18 million cracks in the ceiling” on behalf of women, but there are still 41 million disabled individuals in our nation who want their chance for success as well. Sadly, in the current economic climate, those individuals may be left
further behind.

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