Lucia Rios remembers how going to college began her journey to become an accessibility advocate.
She attended Western Michigan University, which at the time had older buildings that lacked access updates. She missed her first college class because the elevator was broken, and ultimately the class was moved to the first floor.
“Access has become a huge passion of mine because I wanted to participate on campus, but also I started meeting with others with disabilities who had the same issues,” Rios says. “I vowed not to tolerate living a life where I and others would be excluded from participating in the community and the world.”
She set out to do what she could to create change and eliminate barriers. Rios believes it is important for the voices of people with disabilities to be heard. That’s why she has devoted herself to being a disability activities and accessibility advocate. An important way she does that is as the co-editor of the Disability Inclusion series with The Lakeshore WM, which explores the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community.
The 2023 Ability Award nomines: Jason Reinecke, Erin Lyon, Charles Elwood, Sue Bartels, Lucia Rios and Carson Nyenhuis. (deVries Photography)
Rios was honored on April 25 with the Ability Award from the Disability Network Lakeshore (DNL) for going above and beyond to increase accessibility for everyone.
“We are incredibly lucky in West Michigan to have so many talented and driven people working to make Independent Living and Community Inclusion possible. We had a huge task when looking at all six of our nominees. Any one of them would have been a perfect choice to receive the Ability Award. In the end, we were delighted to hear that the selection committee had chosen Lucia and are so proud that she started her career right here at DNL," says Amanda Rhines, DNL Executive Director.
The honor came with congratulations written by State Rep. Nancy DeBoer and signed by Rep. Bradley Slagh, State Rep. Roger Victory, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Lucia’s gift for writing and journalism has been significant in elevating disability issues locally … Her reflections on her life, from her mother who has been her rock and strength to getting a new car and the process of finding one, offer moving touches on humanity,” the State of Michigan Special Tribute read.
Another tribute was given by U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, who in the House of Representatives recognized Rios for “her years of dedicated services for advancing the needs of individuals with disabilities in West Michigan. Born with spina bifida, Lucia profoundly understands the challenges of living with a disability.”
A career of inclusion and empowerment
Launched in 2011, the Ability Award is given annually to an individual in Allegan County or Ottawa County who promotes a spirit of inclusion and a community without barriers. Residents or workers who are engaged in leadership, engagement, advocacy, and empowerment of individuals with disabilities are eligible for this honor.
Disability Inclusion Series Editor Lucia Rios receives 2023 Ability Award from Disability Network Lakeshore. (Shandra Martinez)
Rios’ 20-year-plus career has included giving a voice to and empowering those with disabilities. During 15 years on staff at Disability Network Lakeshore, she helped businesses identify ways they could become more accessible and instructed young adults as they transitioned from school to career.
As a journalist, Rios’ writing has been instrumental in focusing attention on disability issues, including living with her own lifelong disability. She is a mentor to the next generation of advocates and serves on several boards, including the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland area and the Family Hope Foundation. She is also the co-founder of Women of Color Give.
Rios removes barriers and creates access through her presence, voice and activism, which includes her current work with her office of accessibility for Salesforce Inc.
She uses her writing and editing talents in the Disability Inclusion
series. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan, including Lakeshore Disability Network. In addition to appearing in The Lakeshore WM, the series is featured in Rapid Growth
and Southwest Second Wave
Rios has been instrumental in the success of the series, says Paul Schutt, co-founder of Issue Media Group, the Michigan-based parent company of the three publications that carry the Disability Inclusion series.
"Lucia Rios has provided unique leadership for the Disability Inclusion series," Schutt says. "Lucia brings her lived experience in the disability community to help us ensure that we get the stories right. She reviews each story helping us avoid stereotypes, outdated and outright offensive language for folks in the disability community. This has allowed us to make sure each story rings true and encourages those covered to share the stories with their networks."
For more than 25 years, DNL has worked in Allegan and Ottawa counties to create communities where people with disabilities can participate, contribute, and belong. A majority of the organization’s staff and managers are individuals with disabilities, and it serves those with any type of disability, including many that are “invisible,” such as sensory or cognitive impairments and mental health concerns.
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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