I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Northern Nevada Center for Independent Living (NNCIL) to learn about services for adults with disabilities. I’d just been told it was the place to go first. I was told this by more than one person for more than one reason. By the time I arrived in the parking lot, I expected a massive campus where people in suits (or at least capes and tights) busied about solving problems in a single bound. What I found was a small white building with slightly worn chairs, inspiring handwritten messages on posterboard, boxes of brightly colored bags and prizes, and wheeled pumpkins straight out of fairy tales and Tim Burton movies. I’d arrived in the middle of PumpkinPalooza season. And while there was a decided lack of capes, there was a stoked staff and volunteers working their hardest to bring under one roof all the best the community has to offer. In the world of independent living, the NNCIL is epicenter, matching people with community. Even the office dog seemed pretty jazzed to be there.
To give a little context, according to www.disabled-world.com, a clearinghouse for up-to-date national information on disabilities and the people living with them, more than 8 percent of our neighbors are dealing with a world undoubtedly designed and implemented by and for people without disabilities. Nationwide, people with disabilities make up the largest minority group—and one that any of us could become a part of.
As our population ages and medical advancements help better manage long-term medical conditions, more and more of us will find ourselves with a disability. In fact, while the rate of disability for people from birth to 5 years of age was less than 1 percent (according to 2014 Disability Statistics Annual Report produced by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability and Demographics), that number increased with age until it jumped to as much as 36.6 percent for people 65 and older.
As Scott Harrington, Ph.D., BCBA-D, a licensed behavior analyst with Sierra Behavioral Solutions, puts it, "I continue to learn each day that disabilities are a natural part of life. As we age, it is just a matter of time before we acquire a disability, whether it is age-related or acquired by an accident or genetics. The fact is, we are all just 'temporarily-abled.'"
While disability may be part of all our lives eventually, people with disabilities are hit particularly hard during their working years. In 2013 (again according to the Disability Statistics Annual Report), employment rates for people ages 18 to 64 with disabilities were as low as 33.9 percent (compared to as much as 83 percent for the rest of the population). Average earning rate for people over the age of 16 with disabilities was only $20,785, about two-thirds that of their counterparts without disabilities.
I didn’t know any of this, despite having family members with disabilities. Nor did I learn it directly from NNCIL. Meeting with Lisa Bonie, executive director, we talked about people, not numbers. Bonie told me about how living independently allows individuals to have jobs, pay taxes and contribute to society. The numbers back her up. Nevada is on the high end of median pay for people with disabilities, at $22,283 to $30,208 in 2013 (despite our being on the low end of pay for those without disabilities at $27,705 to $30,337). Conversely, we are on the low end for the percentage of people with disabilities living in poverty, though that number is still startling at 16.7 to 24.6 percent. The range for people without disability is 12.9 to 15.1 percent, showing our community is doing a good job at not leaving people with disabilities out in the cold (literally and metaphorically).
Maybe the reason NNCIL is so good at matching people's problems with solutions is that 51 percent of the staff, as well as 51 percent of the board are people with disabilities. Bonie and her staff work with people where they are. They see a problem, and they can make a sustainable solution, be it in the form of programs or partnerships or simple connection. She says, “People will come in and say, ‘I only need a cane,’ or ‘I only need a walker,’ and we sit down with them and go over their options because they probably need other things they don’t even know about. Often, our home visits take us from 'I'm doing OK,' to 'I had no idea that solution was out there.'"
Bonie's central tenant is that there is always a way to help someone solve their challenges.