According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), disabilities impact all of us. More than 61 million adults in the United States currently live with a disability. That’s one in four adults. These disabilities can range from mobility or cognition difficulties, to hearing or vision loss.

In July, Disability Pride Month, persons are encouraged to listen to what the voices of disabled people have to say about their rights and what they need. The month was chosen to recognize when then-President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990.

The month marks a break from traditional concepts of disabilities as shameful conditions, which were often hidden from public spaces and mainstream awareness. Today, there has been a change in the way people think about and define “disability.”

“I want to promote a different understanding of ‘disability’ beyond the medical model. I want people to realize the issue of ‘disability’ as a socially created problem,” said Ann Luetzow at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. “The medical model of disability is presented as a problem of the person, directly caused by trauma, disease, or other health condition, which requires sustained medical care. On the other hand, the management of the problem within the social model of disability requires social action and cultural, individual, community, and large-scale change.”

AbilityFirst is striving to be part of that change.

AbilityFirst  began when, in 1926, a group of businessmen from the Los Angeles Rotary Club reached out to help children affected by the pre-vaccine polio epidemic. Their compassion and concern looked beyond those children’s disabilities.

Originally named the Crippled Children’s Society of Southern California, those businessmen/founders were cutting-edge advocates for disability rights. The group went on to pioneer some of the very first community services in California for children with disabilities. 

In 2000, the name AbilityFirst was adopted to better reflect the organization’s mission, vision, and commitment to celebrating the unique abilities of every individual. Today, it provides a variety of day programs for children and adults at 12 Southern California sites. All are designed to help people with disabilities achieve their personal best throughout their lives. 

In the Joan & Harry A. Mier Center, named for the philanthropist couple who purchased the 8090 Crenshaw Blvd. land in 1976, AbilityFirst offers on-site services for those with intellectual disabilities, including an adult day program, which has no age limit; an after-school program for school-age youth, five to 22 years of age; a community integration program; and aquatics.

The center was refurbished in 2014 from the old, two-story house which had no elevators for the wheelchair-bound.

The organization’s targeted programming is designed to help individuals successfully transition from childhood to adult life. It strengthens and cultivates skills that give participants the tools to successfully navigate each transition in life, including building social connections; creating independence; and preparation for employment. 

“Communication, independent living skills, healthier living and socialization,” said Director Jae Lim. “Those are the four areas we really work on with all of our program participants.”

Altogether, AbilityFirst provides programs and services to help children and adults with intellectual disabilities reach their full potential, despite the ongoing pandemic, current staff shortages and low enrollment numbers.

Lim mentioned that AbilityFirst is hiring. Visit https://tinyurl.com/2e6p49ht. There are multiple positions available at various site locations. There is a part-time Activity Leader position open at the Inglewood location and a high school diploma is required. AbilityFirst is requiring all new employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“It’s still hard for some of the parents,” Lim said, who noted that even though some students are learning virtually because of the pandemic, the facility classrooms are not near their capacity of 27 youth and 27 adults. “They’re still scared.”

AbilityFirst exercise and swim programs are available to the community at large.

“It’s a warm-water pool,” Lim said. “It’s about 90 degrees. It’s warm and calming.”

The facility also houses a kitchen.

“It’s not just a kitchen for food,” Lim said. “It’s a kitchen for learning. We teach them about simple snacks, something maybe they could get out of the refrigerator or out of the pantry. But also we do cooking projects — making jambalaya, I made fried rice with the guys, you know it could be whatever we want to do.”

A variety of programming is designed to inspire learning, socialization and fun. 

“We try to give them as many choices as we can,” Lim said. “We want to give them choice and do the things that they want to do, but in real life, we don’t get to do what we want, we have to compromise and do it that way. I think that’s part of the learning that they need to go through as well.”

Not only are the programs fun for participants, they help them overcome some of the isolation and feelings of anxiety that can result from the disruption of their daily routines.

AbilityFirst programs help to empower disabled individuals to continue to identify and explore their interests and goals; effectively communicate their needs and wants; and Interact in a variety of new activities and environments.

Some activities include learning new technology and computer skills; exercise and other physical activities; and personal care and self-advocacy. 

During one visit, adult participants were learning how to write their names and addresses — vital information to know and remember in case they are separated from caregivers.

Professionals advise parents to shape the autism narrative for their children. Children may notice that they’re different from their neurotypical peers. And children, eager to fit in, may frown upon those perceived as “different.” Teach the child what autism means, but in bite-sized chunks that they can handle. And most importantly, encourage to love and accept all aspects of themselves and form friendships with those who accept and value them.

Parents should also help children nurture their strengths. Children on the spectrum have amazing gifts. Take every opportunity to nurture them through classes, therapies and community activities. Those strengths will be critical to their self-esteem and ability to survive in the world.

Be sure to remind those children that we all have strengths and weaknesses — Elevate your child’s strengths to the greatest possible extent and teach them what they need (such as visual supports) to process information effectively and manage anxiety or sensory challenges. Help them capitalize on their strengths and advocate for their success.

According to the US department of justice civil rights division, To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. 

The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life—to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services. It is modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — the ADA is an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities.

South LA residents may have noticed an increase in construction activity in the neighborhood, mainly rehabbing local sidewalks to make them ADA accessible.

Projects approved include the modifications of intersections and upgrading sidewalks, curb ramps, and pedestrian crossing facilities to ADA standards.

Projects in the public right of way must be constructed to meet the mobility needs of all users including pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, children, older adults, and people with disabilities.

Our Weekly coverage of local news in Los Angeles County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support minority-owned-and-operated community newspapers across California.

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