17 Jan Expanding Rural Independent Living Services
The Independent Living (IL) philosophy seeks to empower people with disabilities to exert influence, choice, and control over all aspects of their lives. In practice, IL support teaches the self advocacy process of goal determination and navigating barriers to achieve one’s goals. For example, Ashley, who is deaf-blind, wished to work with families with children with disabilities, but she needed guidance and support to meet this goal. Ashely worked with an IL specialist in Tennessee to receive peer support, independent living and self-advocacy skills training, and access to interpreters she needed to attend university. Now, due to Ashley’s hard work utilizing her new IL skills, she is well on her way to receiving a degree in social work.
As Ashley’s experience shows, when people have access to the IL philosophy in action, such as independent living skills and deinstitutionalization and community living, they experience quality of life improvements that are well documented. Numerous longitudinal research studies around deinstitutionalization have shown resounding positive results, including improved health and happiness, when people are moved from institutions like nursing homes to smaller integrated community settings. Furthermore, research shows that enhanced independence and self-determination, like that achieved through IL, correlates with superior health outcomes, perceived health status, greater satisfaction, and can lower healthcare costs. In Tennessee, six Centers for Independent Living in the state’s IL Network provide IL services to consumers, thereby facilitating self-determined advancement in diverse areas from housing and transportation to employment and education. However, due to limited funding, more than half of Tennessee’s counties, the vast majority of which are rural, have no access to experienced IL providers. It is estimated that more than 300,000 Tennesseans with disabilities living in rural areas do not currently have access to an IL specialist and the benefits that relationship can afford.
Of additional concern is that, for a myriad of reasons, Tennesseans with disabilities living in rural areas face more barriers than urban dwellers to an equal and included life, such as limited accessible transportation and housing options, and fewer opportunities for inclusive competitive employment. The national IL organizations, National Council on Independent Living and Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living, state that the continued decrease of federal funding for IL Centers has created lack of IL services in rural areas throughout the nation. This proves to be true in the 57 rural Tennessee counties without federally funded IL programs where the percentage of individuals with disabilities under the age of 65 is well above the state average, with some county populations nearing 20%. This means that Tennesseans with disabilities, who could be well served by IL support, are disproportionally located in unserved rural counties. Unfortunately, it is very expensive and often unsustainable to develop new brick and mortar CIL offices in rural counties.
To meet the gap in IL services in rural counties of Tennessee, the Statewide Independent Living Council of Tennessee (SILC TN) reached out to local partners to test a nationwide trend of collaborative programing in a small pilot project. Unlike the CILs, well-established Family Support Network programs and offices exist in all counties, including underserved rural communities.
However, Family Support Network providers they do not have the re sources or specific training to provide IL services in addition to the important work they are already doing. Conversely, CILs have IL expertise and management abilities, but not the physical office space or local connection to rural areas. When these two programs combine their resources and skills, SILC TN believes that barriers to IL in rural Tennessee can be greatly reduced.
Therefore, the SILC TN, in collaboration with the Community Development Center’s Family Support Network (CDC) in Lincoln County and Empower Tennessee, have sought and received funding from the Tennessee Disability Coalition’s Small Grant program to develop an Independent Living Rural Outreach and Advocacy Pilot Project. This project will employ a part-time Independent Living (IL) specialist in Lincoln County to provide IL services to Lincoln and the surrounding rural counties of Franklin, Bedford, Marshall, Moore, and Coffee. This IL specialist will be trained and supported by all collaborating partners, and benefit from the shared professional and physical resources of these three organizations. The implementation and results of this pilot project will provide IL support to Tennesseans with disabilities living in currently unserved areas and will be evaluated and developed into a replicable model to be shared across the IL network, thereby building capacity to expand IL in rural areas.
As this project launches, SILC TN wants to thank the Tennessee Disability Coalitions Small Grant Committee, the CDC, and Empower Tennessee for their commitments to providing IL services to Tennesseans with disabilities in rural areas. All of the partners look forward to sharing the results on this pilot project as it proceeds.