Series to explore the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community

One billion people, or 15% of the world's population, experience some form of disability. In Michigan, the percentage is much higher, with 30% of adults reporting one or more disabilities, according to 2019 state data.

And that percentage has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Michigan residents who became sick with COVID-19 in 2020 were almost twice as likely to experience disability following their illness, a University of Michigan study found. 

More than three decades since the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted, those with disabilities continue to face discrimination, from employment to housing. As a result, they are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty level compared to those without disabilities.

“There's also a misconception that people with disabilities do not want to work. Most of the calls we receive for resources or referrals are around obtaining employment or maintaining employment,” says Diane N. Fleser, executive director of Disability Network West Michigan in Muskegon. “I think a silver lining to the pandemic has been the acceptance of a mobile workforce and allowing people to have accommodations at home to be able to do their work.”

Discrimination has wide effects

More than half of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan's 225 housing discrimination allegations in 2021 were related to disability status -- three times the number related to race. It was the seventh year that the illegal discrimination against those with disabilities has outpaced discrimination based on other factors.

The team at the Disability Network West Michigan at a staff retreat in 2021.

Fewer than one in every five persons with a disability has a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the pandemic, the employment rate among those with disabilities was 19.1% in 2021, from 17.9% in 2020. Those without disabilities are three times as likely to be employed. During that same period, the U.S. employment rate for people without a disability was 63.7%, up from 61.8% in the prior year. 

The poverty rate in Michigan for people with disabilities is 29%, compared to 11% for people without disabilities, according to the 2020 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium.

Looking for solutions

This article begins a weekly series that will explore the challenges faced by those with disabilities along with the efforts across West Michigan to address the discrimination and inequity. The stories will be told through the lens of solutions-based journalism, where we focus on ways all of us can take part in addressing these issues. The first step is learning about the state’s biggest minority community, which often falls under the radar during conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Lucia Rios

“Our goal is to make this series a starting place for a conversation about what it's like to live with a disability and what it looks like to support someone with a disability. We know that when we learn to value our diversity and create an equitable and inclusive environment, everyone in our communities benefits,” says Lucia Rios, a West Michigan disability activist and part of Salesforce’s pioneering accessibility team.

She is the co-editor of the series with Shandra Martinez, managing editor of The Lakeshore WM. Rios, who also serves as The Lakeshore’s community engagement editor, has chronicled how the COVID-19 pandemic has created more options for people with disabilities in how they work, socialize and engage civically.

Our partners in this series are four West Michigan centers for independent living that play a critical role in connecting resources to those in the disability community, as well as providing support for their families. They are Disability Advocates of Kent County, Disability Network West Michigan, Disability Network Lakeshore and Disability Network Southwest Michigan.

We hope you will take this journey with us and share your experiences or story ideas by emailing us here

Changing perspectives

Amanda Rhines, executive director with Disability Network Lakeshore, hopes that readers of the series gain a better understanding of the Independent Living philosophy and why it is so essential to people with disabilities. 

“It’s a dramatic shift in the way we view disability,” Rhines said. “It moves us from the medical model, where disability is a problem to be solved by non-disabled people, to one that centers the lived experience of people with disabilities as the experts in their own lives.  Essentially, it’s the empowerment of voices that are often left out of the story of their own lives.”
DNL employees, Angela Mitchell and Michael Niederer, discuss customer information.
In many ways, the disability community is very fragmented because it is so diverse and individuals with disabilities require support that is tailored to their needs. Sometimes, these solutions can provide challenges for people with different disabilities. For example, metal bumps that help people with vision disabilities detect when they are about to leave the sidewalk and enter the street can be difficult for people in wheelchairs to maneuver over.

“The disability community is extremely diverse—the standard stereotype is a blind person or wheelchair user or deaf person.  These are small percentages of the disability community,” says David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County. “Disability also does not discriminate in that people with disabilities are within every demographic group. Thus intersectionality really is key for disability inclusion.”

Disability Advocates of Kent County's Youth Transition Specialist Jon Cauchi showing some students how to tie ties before their mock interviews. (Disability Advocates of Kent County)
Making a stronger community

While diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are being promoted in almost all sectors right now, disability has not typically been part of that conversation. 

“Disability is diversity.  We work with organizations, businesses and communities to understand how to create an inclusive community where disability is valued,” says Yvonne Fleener, President and CEO of Disability Network Southwest Michigan, which covers eight counties. “And with Michigan having one of the largest aging populations, we need to be more proactive with accessibility measures.  Accessible communities impact more than just people with disabilities; the benefits of access extend well beyond the disability experience to mothers with strollers or grandfathers who use a cane.  What we try to create for people with disabilities really brings a much broader benefit to the entire community,”

Disability Network Southwest Michigan's brain injury survivor's support group visit Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek. (DNSWM)

While we plan to highlight the challenges that those with disabilities continue to face, we also want to draw attention to the organizations and people who are addressing these inequalities.

For example, a silver lining of the pandemic has been companies’ willingness to let people work remotely. That shift in attitude has made it easier for people with mobility issues to join the workforce.

“People live vibrant, independent lives with all sorts of disabilities,” Fleener says. “And the more we can start thinking about disability as diversity and not a deficit, the better we're all going to be as a community.”

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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