IndependenceFirst Interview – Part 1 of 3

IndependenceFirst logoIndependenceFirst has been in operation since 1979, previously known as the Southeastern Wisconsin Center for Independent Living (SEWCIL) prior until 1995.

Servicing the greater metro Milwaukee area, they offer services from independent living skills training to referrals, counseling, advocacy — as many facets as there are to providing services to people with any kinds of disabilities.

I first became aware of IndependenceFirst through their Twitter presence (Independence1st), helmed by PR/Marketing Director, Carol Voss.

I recently asked Ms. Voss a few questions about their services, and she very graciously offered these insightful answers.


Q: In a nutshell, what services do you provide?

A: We really want to be the FIRST place people call when they have questions about disability or access issues. We answer over 5,000 information/referral inquiries annually from people with disabilities, their family members, friends, business owners, employers, general community.

In addition to that, we offer over 20 direct services for people with disabilities– all are geared towards helping people achieve their goals and chart their own course. Services range from Wheelchair Sports & Adaptive Recreation program opportunities for youth and adults, to employment and benefits counseling, internships, assistive technology consultations, accessibility or aging in place consultations, personal care services, computer recycling program and much more.

We have a vision of full inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of our community and everything we do is to realize that vision. We see people with all types of disabilities and throughout all age groups. People who have age-related disability are welcome to access our services and get involved at our nonprofit of course too!

Most of our services are free of charge. A few have minor fees for things like sports programs. Finally, there is some eligibility for employment services or personal care since those are contracts services with individual entities like the WI Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, WI Medicaid, etc.

Q: Your core values are Education, Advocacy, Independent Living Services, and Coalition Building — for each of these, what are some examples of how you help empower people with disabilities?

A: Education – We help people get the information they need to make their own choices–we feel that people with disabilities should have the right to choose their own course and we don’t tell people with disabilities what to do. Rather we provide them with information they can use to realize their goals. We also hold many community forums with elected officials, candidates, training sessions around issues including self-directed supports, transportation and much more.
Success Story – We provided customer service training for the hospitality industry twice through VISIT Milwaukee to help businesses realize how people with disabilities are an untapped customer base and a market that can be profitable as age-related disabilities become more numerous with the aging of the boomer population.

Advocacy – We help people understand how to advocate for themselves–understanding their own rights and responsibilities so that they can feel comfortable speaking for themselves when they may experience barriers in the community, want to advocate with their elected officials on a particular issue that is important to them, know who their elected officials are and how to contact them, etc. We also have a number of advocacy teams that are comprised of staff and consumers with disabilities around particular issues that are important like ADA Access, Housing or Transportation so they can learn from each other and get involved in creating change in society and for themselves ,
Success Story – We attempted over and over again to generate awareness around the lack of access in Milwaukee’s Riverwalk district and 3+ years ago with consumers who wanted access, after finally filing a formal ADA Access complaint with the Department. of Justice, a settlement was reached to make the Riverwalk accessible for people with disabilities. This was in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other news sources. Since then, we’ve been consulted on a number of projects in the Menominee Valley, at Miller Park, many locations and have been subcontracted for accessibility consultation with 3 casino/hotel expansion projects throughout the US because of our expertise in that area.

Independent Living Services – We offer training sessions on independent living skills areas and direct 1:1 participation with IL Coordinators who work individually with consumers on their individual IL skill and goal achievement. Other IL services including Peer Mentoring, Wheelchair Sports & Adaptive Recreation, Youth Leadership Summit and 1:1 goal setting, Girls First Youth Peer Group, A Peer Power program for youth with disabilities, high school transitions classes, financial literacy series, etc. IL Skills training and 1:1 services in IL areas provide people with disabilities the tools they can use as they move towards realizing their dreams and goals for independent living.
Success Story – A shy young girl who never tried sports had spina bifida and was encouraged by her parents to try wheelchair basketball in our recreational program. She found she was very good at it, stuck with it. Her confidence built along with her skills. She got into competitive sports and she won a gold medal in the Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team USA paralympic games in Beijing last fall.

Coalition Building – Staff and consumers participate and take leadership roles in organizing cross-disability coalitions around particular issues including community based long term care reform, transportation/paratransit, housing trust fund, more. There is power in numbers and through coalition building we can leverage our organization and the power of collaboration to achieve goals that other organizations also benefit from. There is no duplication of service and reinventing the wheel around issues if everyone is on a coalition, working together to affect positive change for people with disabilities.
Success Story – In the last County budget cycle we were able to coordinate a rally outside of Scott Walker’s office with transit consumers and other disability nonprofits and stop a fare increase.

We empower people with disabilities directly through our programs and the skills they develop but also we impact the community to be more inclusive of people with disabilities who have the same goals and dreams as their non-disabled counterparts. People are more alike than different and everyone has something to contribute in society. Over 50% of our staff, management and board have disabilities themselves so we really walk (or roll!) the talk. When people meet IL Coordinators or come to our programs, they see other people who have been through similar things as what they are going through. There are role models there for them and people who understand exactly the situation they are in. It helps with outcomes and understanding that goals can be met.


In the second part of this interview series, we talk specifically about disabled users of the computers and the Internet, covering topics such as assistive technologies.

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