Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Claremont And Other Cities Have More Ways To Help Disabled Residents

“I’m armed,” says Angela Nwokike, who is legally blind but works as the systems change advocate for Services Center for Independent Living. She demonstrates to Claremont Mayor Corey Calaycay and Claremont City Council Member Larry Schroeder one of the tools she’s armed with, software that converts text to voice.  Photo by Chris Sloan

(CLAREMONT, Calif.) Getting to work and back for Angela Nwokike of Fontana requires travel by four buses and two trains. She can’t drive because she’s legally blind.

Every day, Nwokike must read email, mail and other text to do her job at the Services Center for Independent Living in Claremont. Since she’s blind she relies on a program called JAWS For Windows® (software that translates text to voice, called JAWS because it provides Job Access With Speech) to read them for her.

She also speaks to government officials in her job, and this requires traveling to various city halls and board rooms, often at night.  There she must navigate floor plans between the seats and the speakers’ podium and, as required of everyone, fill out a “request to speak” card.

For that, a personal attendant comes in handy.

As the systems change advocate for Services Center for Independent Living in Claremont Nwokike is familiar with the extra help she needs to have an independent life and a career, despite being robbed of her eyesight nine years ago through glaucoma.

For many others who are blind or suffer from another type of disability, knowing how to live an independent life is more of a challenge. Services Center for Independent Living’s mission is to help residents of the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys meet those challenges head-on.

After 30 years in business, this Claremont non-profit agency became better able to meet the needs of the people it serves by moving to a larger location at 107 Spring St. It hosted a Grand Reopening to show the community, including local elected officials Assembly Member Anthony Adams and members of the Claremont City Council, how the center helps disabled people live full, independent lives.

“We are honored to see how they provide these services to our residents that need them,” said Claremont Mayor Corey Calaycay. “We’re excited for the many more things they will now be able to do for them.”

Besides Claremont, Services Center for Independent Living also helps residents of Arcadia, Azusa, Bradbury, Baldwin Park, Covina, Diamond Bar, Duarte, El Monte, Glendora, Hacienda Heights, Industry, La Puente, La Verne, Monrovia, Pomona, Rowland Heights, San Dimas, Sierra Madre, Walnut and West Covina.

As a blind person, Nwokike continues to have a successful career. She’s armed with the right tools and an understanding of how to work with government agencies to educate them about what she needs.

As the systems change advocate at Services Center for Independent Living, Nwokike teaches others how to work with those same government agencies to bring about the changes they need. She also educates clients on ways they may not know of to use the resources they already have.

Different disabilities bring about different needs. For instance, as a blind person, Nwokike has had some scary moments when a bus was late and she waited by herself at a bus stop, not knowing if she was truly alone or in the presence of people who could harm her.

“I am armed,” she said. “I keep my cell phone close at hand, with my finger on the speed dial for 911.”

If a person is mobility impaired instead of blind, they would not have Nwokike’s difficulty in seeing what’s around her. But frequently, what they see are situations they cannot navigate.

In Claremont, not far from Services Center for Independent Living, there are sidewalk curbs that don’t have the proper cutouts for wheelchair access, Nwokike said. She’s going to ask the Claremont City Council to fix that soon, but at the Grand Opening, she already had sympathetic ears from the mayor and two city council members

Another disabled employee of this center, Corinne Garcia, serves as the assistive technology manager, helping them find the tools they need, such as Angela’s JAWS software.

“A person with severe muscle spasms might not be able to eat with regular plates and silverware,” Garcia said. “However, there are plates with lips and silverware with wide handles that can be twisted to different angles that will give spastic people the control they need to feed themselves.’

Children who don’t have fine muscle coordination might not be able to lift traditional crayons with their fingers, but Services Center for Independent Living has paperless crayons shaped like stars, leaves and pieces of fruit. All a child needs to do with these crayons is push them against the paper.

“We believe in helping people to live independently,” said Garcia. “If all you do is feed someone they aren’t independent. But given the right tools, they can be!”

There are other staff members who help the disabled people, which Services Center for Independent Living calls “consumers,” find their way around the building. Some of them meet one on one with the clientele, helping them to come up with a plan for their own independence.

Overseeing all of Services Center for Independent Living is Dr. Lee Nattress, executive director. Dr. Nattress has more than 60 years experience working in health care, beginning with the development and fitting of artificial limbs.

His past experience includes coordinating extension programs at the then newly-established University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine in the 1950s, executive director for the American Board for Certification in Orthotics and Prosthetics in Chicago, and a consulting business that helped many universities around the country strengthen their medical programs.

He “retired” from a position as the director of the Office of Education and Research in the Department of Family Medicine at Loma Linda University in 1997, but has since then managed or directed several community-based organizations that help disabled people. He’s been the executive director of Services Center for Independent Living since 2007, and since then has strived to make government leaders and business people aware of the services this center provides.

In Claremont, at least three city council members and one assembly member are impressed with what Dr. Nattress and the rest of the Services Center for Independent Living are doing to make life better for the disabled.

“Our city feels responsible for meeting the needs of all of our residents,” said Council Member Peter Yao. “It is important for us as council members to be able to know as much as we can about our city’s organizations that can help. Now that we have seen what Services Center for Independent Living can do, we will promote its programs.”

Services Center for Independent Living is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, established in 1980 to meet the needs of east San Gabriel Valley and Pomona Valley disabled residents. Services include training in independent living skills, advocacy, helping to acquire tools to assist with mobility and other basic needs and providing information and referrals.

For more information, call (909) 621-6722.  Disabled users of videophones or teletype phones may call (909) 445-0726.