At first glance, the sunny ground-floor offices of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California, look like any other busy non-profit organization. The bulletin board is a riot of posted notices and reminders, the photocopier is in overdrive, and people are busy typing on keyboards and talking into telephones.
But almost everyone here has some disability. They may be blind or deaf or mentally disabled, or - like CIL's executive director Jan Garrett, who was born with no limbs - they get around by using a motorized wheelchair.
"That's one of the reasons the Center for Independent Living is important," says Garrett. "It brings together all kinds of people with different disabilities, and artificial walls go away and people are just people."
Garrett adds, "Everyone at CIL is fighting for the same basic rights that people without disabilities have - to access the community, to access transportation, to work, to have families and lives, to live and love and be in society."
Center at forefront of movement for equal rights
Today, Americans with disabilities face few legal impediments to full inclusion in public life. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, banned discrimination in the workplace and mandated reasonable accommodations for the disabled in new public buildings and in mass transportation.
One foundation for the ADA was laid by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination against the disabled by any group receiving federal funds. Garrett says disability activists at the newly formed CIL lobbied strongly for the bill.
"People with disabilities saw that there were very few rights for them. Very few people were actually getting to go to college. Few people had access to their community at all because there were no curb ramps. There was no access. If you were blind, you couldn't read anything. There were no interpreters for deaf individuals."
In addition, says Garrett, people with developmental disabilities were institutionalized and were literally, often dying anonymously within institutions.
"And people with disabilities saw these other civil rights movements and said. 'We have human rights as well, and we need to be able to access those rights!' So CIL was really the birth of that disability civil rights movement."
Programs teach people with disabilities to speak up
Although people with disabilities have gained access to American public transportation like buses and trains, many people with disabilities are either afraid or embarrassed to use them, or simply feel they can't.
"We're pretty much all about can here at CIL," says Chris Mullen, who runs CIL's ambitious Transit Outreach Program, which teaches people with disabilities how to take the buses and covers from reading a transit map to techniques for remembering to the correct fare to city landmarks to note on the way to travel destinations. Mullen says his program also shows people "… how to get to a seat, how to advocate for what one's rights as a person with a disability."
Learning to live independently often means advocating for oneself in the home environment. For the newly disabled, that can mean asking for help with personal care and other such tasks for the first time and knowing how to demand all necessary help from home health aides, without apologies.
Esperanza Diaz Alvarez, who cannot walk due to a birth defect called spina bifida, trains CIL clients to be assertive.
"I get a lot of consumers who come to me and say, 'My home care provider is not willing to come in on Sunday, but they can come in on Monday.' And I have to ask my consumer, 'When do you want them?' They don't want to argue. They just take it."
Alvarez acknowledges that she used to be hesitant with help herself.
"I'd say, 'It's okay! They're helping me.' But really, it's not okay."
Today, Alvarez sees herself as "tough."
Center helps people with disabilities engage world
Sometimes it's eliminating physical barriers that make the difference between being homebound and living a full life. Two simple steps outside her front door are all that have prevented Melinda Hicks from getting her wheelchair out of the house and down to the street. A successful computer specialist, Hicks was stricken with progressive muscular sclerosis, M.S., about four years ago. Soon, Hicks hopes to take advantage of a free program offered by the Center for Independent Living that makes curb cuts and installs wheelchair ramps. The project would be paid for by the city.
"It'll revitalize my life," says Hicks, with a hopeful smile. "It will allow me… to go out into the world again, to go to the store by myself [and] to go down to the beach. These are things I have not been able to do in four years. So it's a miracle to me."
Indeed, for Hicks, freedom of movement is much more than a practical matter.
"It will restore a part of me that I've missed so much! I'm just so grateful to the Center for Independent Living. They give people hope. It's such a beautiful thing."
The Center for Independent Living also offers people with disabilities job training. It acts as a liaison between the disabled community and city, state and federal governments, and conducts sensitivity and disability awareness workshops in California's workplaces and public schools.
When asked to state the unifying message of all these pursuits, one longtime CIL staffer simply says, "Dream to your biggest hopes, then seek to make those dreams come true. It makes a better world for everybody."