This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA) became law in 1990, people living with disabilities and their families often continue to face discrimination, disrespect, and difficulties navigating the built environment, educational systems, and employment opportunities. But three Michigan nonprofits are taking innovative approaches to supporting and empowering people with disabilities so they can truly achieve the rights promised to them by the law.
Located in Northville, the Living and Learning Enrichment Center
(LLEC) arose from Rachelle Vartanian's over 20-year career in special education and her experience parenting a child diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. She sold her home, drew upon retirement savings, and downsized her life to found LLEC in 2015. In 2020, LLEC was able to purchase a historic Northville mansion
on 12 acres to house its services for people living with all kinds of disabilities.
The Living and Learning Enrichment Center.
"Now we're on this beautiful estate," Vartanian says. "We have alpacas. We have chickens. We have lavender. We have an art studio here. It's unbelievable."
Alpacas at the Living and Learning Enrichment Center.
LLEC not only helps people with disabilities learn job skills but also educates employers on how to support people with disabilities on the job and empower them to succeed.
"We work with the person [with disabilities] at the job, and then we fade out and check on them periodically," Vartanian says. "We have people that have been in their jobs for over five years. We have placed over 70 people in paying jobs that give them value, give them purpose, that they love."
The Living and Learning Enrichment Center.
Through a partnership with Cisco
, a digital communications technology corporation, LLEC offers a cybersecurity certificate program for people living with disabilities who need less employment support. So far, five cohorts have completed the program. Vartanian says every member of last year's graduating class but one now has a job paying $60,000 or more per year.
LLEC also tackles housing. Parents raising children with disabilities often worry where their child will end up when they die. To date, four LLEC program participants have been matched with apartments across the street from LLEC, where they live independently.
"Because I was a special education teacher before this, I knew what happened when they got done with school," Vartanian says. "There's nothing out there. I don't have a lot of family support. When my son was diagnosed, I got a divorce that year. I kept thinking, 'Oh, my God. What is going to happen when I die?' And that is what every parent thinks."
The Arc Detroit: a pioneer in disability rights
The '50s were a time when parents of children with disabilities began to rally across the nation. They asserted that institutionalizing and marginalizing people with disabilities was cruel, unnecessary, and harmful. As a part of that movement, a group of Detroit parents got together to advocate for their children who were living with intellectual impairments and other developmental disabilities.
A group at The Arc Detroit.
Organized as The Arc Detroit
, they worked to change policies and practices so their children could have a good education, job opportunities, and housing options — nearly four decades before the ADA became law. Because of their work, residents of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park with disabilities now attend public schools, learn job skills, hold jobs, and live in their own homes.
"We empower individuals with disabilities in several ways," says Loren Glover, executive director of The Arc Detroit. "We are sitting with parents of kids with disabilities in IEP [Individualized Education Programs
] meetings and we put adults with disabilities in a position to advocate for themselves."
One way The Arc teaches advocacy is through its monthly People First of Wayne County meetings, which invite one city council member and one member of a city department to meet with Arc constituents. These residents with disabilities tell their municipal representatives what their challenges and needs are, and advocate for changes that will meet their needs.
"A big issue now is paratransit," Glover says. Paratransit
is an ADA-required alternative mode of flexible passenger transportation that better services people with disabilities. "They've also told public works about things like cracks in the sidewalk [that make wheelchair access difficult]. They talk to these different departments and learn how to advocate for themselves."
The Arc collaborates with the Michigan Alliance for Families
to inform families on disability and education issues impacting their children from birth to age 26, from IEPs to transitioning from school to work or community.
The Arc Detroit also hosts social events including dances and sports activities. Its basketball team plans on playing a tournament in France this year. And a collaboration with the Michigan Secretary of State Mobile Office
makes it easier for the people that The Arc serves to get disability parking placards and license plates.
"We also educate police departments on how to deal with people with disabilities, people who might be autistic, people using a wheelchair, people who are nonverbal," Glover says, noting that situations can escalate when a police officer asks a person a question and gets no response. "We don't want the police to misinterpret that."
Brody's Be Café: Meaningful careers, not menial employment
Across the state in the Western Michigan village of Ada, coffee shop Brody's Be Café
employs people living with disabilities and advocates for them as they step into meaningful careers with other local businesses.
Employees at Brody's Be Cafe.
"We believe that the employee can do what we're asking them to do — and we enter into that relationship with grace and patience," says Rachel Stadt, executive director of Brody's Be Cafe.
Inspired by founder Jennifer Cole's son, Brody, who was born with Down syndrome, Brody's Be Cafe opened in 2019 to both provide employment opportunities and create an environment where people with disabilities felt love, acceptance, and belonging.
"We're trying to train our employees how to be employable, not just at the cafe, but to be employable anywhere," Stadt says. "We're teaching them how you present yourself when you show up, how you handle conflict at work, how you handle yourself when you don't like something. We are really trying to give them a learning environment."
Stadt shares the story of a 37-year-old employee who is selectively mute
. She and the staff have been working with him on greeting people who come in and asking what they'd like to order.
"It is very hard for him. Sometimes he'll just stand there," Stadt says. "When he wants something, he will stand right next to you. He won't say anything. And then you know that he wants something."
During spring break, Stadt came into the café to lend a hand and joined him behind the counter.
An employee at Brody's Be Cafe.
"All of a sudden, he blurts out, 'Have you seen any good movies lately?' And you know, we had a conversation because he wanted to tell me that he had seen the 'Super Mario Brothers' movie," Stadt says. "When his mom came to pick him up, she said, 'Thank you so much for sharing that. Tonight's going to be a great night.'"
Brody's Be Café has expanded to include Maggie's Be Cafe
in Hudsonville and Kenzie's Be Cafe
in Grand Haven. A new program manager will help others replicate the program. The intent is not to create a coffee shop chain but to document what goes into making any business an environment that supports career opportunities where people living with disabilities can successfully contribute, earn a living, and find a job that aligns with their interests.
"We're trying to equip this population of people who can work and want to work," Stadt says. "They want to have purpose. They want to be tax-paying citizens. They want to be out in their communities. Many of them are really capable of doing that. They just need a little help. We are trying to have this opportunity be in every community because people with special needs are everywhere."
Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.
LLEC photos by Steve Koss. All other photos courtesy of the subjects.