Independent Living

First Annual Independent Living Award 2012

We are honored to recognize for the first time during the Montana Statewide Independent Living Council meeting, the Systems Advocacy/Change activities that the CILs promote for Montanans with disabilities. This award is to recognize the good work that is being done around the state that promotes the mission of Independent Living which is, "To make IL a reality for Montanans with disabilities by promoting and practicing a philosophy of consumer control, development of peer role models, self-determination, self-help, equal access, and advocacy in order to maximize independence, integration and full inclusion of persons with disabilities into mainstream Montana."

Darren Larsen
Darren Larson Summit Independent Living Specialist (Missoula), Housing Task Force Chairperson

The four Montana Centers for Independent Living are the, "change agents behind the force that leads to a community based endeavor to join together to ensure that Montanans with disabilities can live and participate in their own communities. Systems advocacy varies from community to community and may address a range of systems. The core factor is to develop a community based system that involves a diverse array of individuals, programs and other systems that work together to promote change." The centers have submitted several snap shots of the work that is being accomplished in Montana regarding consumer driven change. The diversity of the systems change is reflected as one woman who needed a modified mode of transportation joined forces with other consumers to pass a law that allows people with disabilities to use golf carts as their mode of transportation in their daily activities. Other people with disabilities used various methods of advocacy to secure accessible housing, accommodations for blind and low vision, transitional services for students and accessible transit facility.

Thee request for IL Systems Advocacy/Change nominations was completed during the month of February 2012. The applications were forwarded to the review committee consisting of Beverly Berg, Program Administrator, Blind and Low Vision Program; Robert Bushing, Chairperson, SILC, Pat Sanders, DTP Transportation Coordinator and Troy Spang, SILC member and Director, Northern Cheyenne VR Program, who ranked the applications.

Four independent living success stories were submitted for the First Annual IL Award.

The top ranked Systems Advocacy/Change account represents the dedication of representatives from all four Montana IL centers.

Housing Success Story

Michael M. O'Neil
Michael M. O’Neil
AWARE, Housing Task Force Member

The Housing Task Force has been active in advocating for increased affordable/accessible housing throughout Montana. The Task Force includes representatives from all four Independent Living Centers in Montana, the Statewide Independent Living Council, the Rural Institute on Disabilities at the University of Montana, Montana AWARE, and several consumers.

In 2011, the Housing Task Force identified the requirement of Visitability -basic home access- for all newly constructed homes to be a major goal to work towards. Visitability features are:

  • One zero step entrance on the main floor
  • Doorways and hallways measuring 32"-36"
  • A half bath on the main floor with maneuver space for a walker, wheelchair, or scooter.

To achieve this, the task force participated in webinars and meetings throughout the year and submitted written testimonies to offer public comment that influenced the building practices of the State housing programs listed below.

MT Board of Housing – Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program – Full Visitability requirement adoption – October 17th, 2011

Tom Thompson
Tom Thompson
Summit Peer Mentor, Housing Task Force Member

MT Department of Commerce – HOME program – Full Visitability requirement adoption – November 15, 2011

MT Department of Commerce – Consolidated Development Block Grant (CDBG) program – Visitability requirement at end Consolidated Plan Hearing presentation – October 27th, 2011

Montana is the only state to have Visitability required in the LIHTC, HOME, and CDBG programs.

The second highest rated Systems Advocacy/Change account is described below.

Systems Change Success Story

MILP has been actively involved in increasing transportation options for individuals with disabilities in the Helena area. As a result of various partnerships and applying much effort, transportation access has been highlighted. This project has a bitter and sweet dimension. The bitters involve: a citywide effort "Friends of Transportation" targeted at developing a "Helena transportation district." This involved working with local officials at developing a committee to plan and coordinate efforts. The Helena Transportation District was unfortunately not placed on the local ballot due to falling short of required signatures by 336. That effort is now again underway and we learned considerably from that experience. On the sweet side: Helena received Federal Stimulus funds resulting in the construction of a new transit facility. Unfortunately the entire facility was not designed with ADA compliance for an employee restroom. Considerable discussion and advocacy was sponsored by MILP staff, which involved discussions with the city of Helena's ADA Committee, attorney, advocacy, and letters written by Disability Rights Montana and finally an appeal to the Federal Access Board. As a result the Access Board agreed with MILP and others. Subsequently their opinion was considered. Construction plans changed and now a greater level of accessibility is achieved for anyone who may enter the transit facility.

Cassie Weightman
Cassie Weightman
MILP Independent Living Specialist (Butte), Housing Task Force Member

MILP's IL specialist in the Butte office has worked closely with the statewide Housing Task Force. As a result of the task force work greater awareness of the "Visitability" concept is growing. MILP's IL Specialist has presented numerous times to various groups about Visitability. MILP staff has been instrumental in working with National Affordable Housing in the Butte area to ensure that all new homes are constructed with the Visitable features. AMILP consumer recently was approved for and moved into a newly constructed Visitable Habitat home.

MILP's Bozeman office has also been advocating heavily for appropriate housing options in the Bozeman area. MILP's IL staff have worked closely with the HRDC office in Bozeman to develop partnerships. These partnerships resulted in the development of an accessible homeless shelter, the first shelter for Bozeman's community. The shelter committee is actively seeking funds for a permanent structure as well as staffing. The shelter is currently ran strictly by volunteers and operates through the generosity of several locations. MILP staff will stay involved to encourage and advocate for accessibility.

The third Systems Advocacy/Change account relates to transportation.

Transportation Success Story

Shyla Patera
Shyla Patera
NCILS (Black Eagle), Transportation Task Force Chairperson, Housing Task Force Member

NCILS staff started working with one of our peer advocates who lives in Lewistown, Montana in early July 2010 with a campaign to amend sections of the MCA within Title 61 Motor Vehicles. The current law requires a person, if operating a golf cart on the street, to acquire a motorcycle endorsement on their driver's license. There was a need to define a golf cart operating on the street as a low-speed electric vehicle.
The problem was that the peer advocate was unable to secure the motorcycle endorsement, yet the golf cart was an excellent vehicle choice in meeting her local transportation needs within town. NCILS recognized that this systems change activity would not only benefit the consumer in her hometown, but would provide an opportunity for increase access to additional modes of transportation statewide for consumers that also rely on public transportation in meeting their daily living activities. HB 213 was developed to address this transportation issue through the consumers' activities with their State law makers.

Throughout the late summer months of 2010 the NCILS staff worked with the consumer to develop a campaign designed to educate local legislators and community neighbors in the need to amend the existing law.

The bill was signed into Montana law. The amended law removed the required motorcycle endorsement, and defined a golf cart operating on the street as a low-speed electric vehicle.

The fourth Systems Advocacy/Change account describes several examples of improving the independent living skills of individuals with low vision and advocacy skills of a student.

IL and Advocacy Skills Success Stories

1. LIFTT's service area consists of 18 counties in eastern Montana, 17 of which are classified as frontier counties by the US Census. This means that each of these 17 counties has a population of less than 6 persons per square mile, virtually all of whom pride themselves on being independent and taking care of themselves. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity to an independent living center, whose very mission is rooted in the goal of helping people maintain their independence in the community. On one hand, many people are loathe to ask for assistance and on the other hand they are often grateful for the assistance of a skilled independent living specialist who understands firsthand and the difference between advocacy and self-help and taking care of someone and/or their problems for them.

As a result of outreach into far southeastern Montana, IL Specialist Jen met an elderly woman whose eyesight was so diminished she could no longer read anything. Her husband would not read the paper or her mail for her or assist her in completing paperwork. On occasion, this elderly woman would ask a friend to read something important for her, but mostly she did without and became more and more isolated.

When talking with Jen, the woman made it clear that the lack of assistance from her husband was a personal matter and that she just wanted to find a way to re-engage with the world around her by reading the paper, reading her mail, and managing her own personal matters rather than having to rely on someone else. Jen discussed the option of obtaining assistive equipment, but the woman felt that at her age, the skills were not there. Jen suggested that perhaps hiring someone as a reader might be a more comfortable option as it would not leave the woman feeling like she was imposing on friends and neighbors. The consumer had not thought about this and felt like it was an ideal answer. By hiring someone, she would be "paying her own way" which is hugely important to most Montanans, and she could also create a written agreement about the privacy of information in her mail and on other documents. She was able to advertise and find a person on her own after talking with an IL Specialist who simply offered alternatives that would help preserve this woman's independence.

Shannon Payne and Melanie
Shannon Payne
LIFTT Independent Living Specialist, working with Melanie

2. LIFTT achieved several significant achievements during the past fiscal year. LIFTT hired Shannon Payne as an IL Specialist after completing her student internship with LIFTT in the fall of 2010. After graduating in December 2010, Shannon came on board as an Independent Living Specialist with a goal to provide direct skills training to individuals with disabilities. Since that time, Shannon has truly found her niche and that began with Melanie.


Melanie lives in a rural eastern Montana community and over the past few years, has lost much of her vision and became socially isolated. Melanie asked LIFTT for assistance in finding a way to reduce her social isolation and help her maintain contact with her friends and family. Melanie was no longer working and felt like her life was going nowhere.

IL Specialists assisted Melanie in applying for funds through a foundation to obtain a computer with a large screen monitor and appropriate software. Shannon spent several days over the course of the winter and spring helping Melanie set up the computer and teaching her basic computer skills. Shannon assigned homework and Melanie eagerly completed each assignment until she was able to use the various Microsoft programs, e-mail her friends and family, and use the computer and printer to devise materials for her church activities.

The biggest surprise for Melanie and for LIFTT staff as well, was when Melanie began to discuss the possibility of re-entering the workforce. Developing computer skills and learning about the wide variety of assistive technology currently available has opened new doors for Melanie and validated Shannon's hard work.

3. Shannon has also taken on the task of teaching Braille to one of LIFTT's consumers in order to help him prepare for his student teaching assignment. David was preparing for student teaching high school history. He wanted to create notes and lesson plans on his own, both for ease of use and to model this skill for his mainstream classroom students. Learning Level 2 Braille was his road to independence and to a successful semester as a student teacher. David has now graduated and is a peer with LIFTT. He has also identified obtaining a Masters Degree in Education as a long term goal.

4. LIFTT staff created a wonderful partnership with the Lion's Club Foundation this past year and worked with the Foundation to obtain a laptop and appropriate software for a consumer who had received a Traumatic Brain Injury. In addition to other impacts, the TBI had affected this consumer's eyesight, and his eye clinic prescribed a daily regimen of visual exercises that would be guided by computer software. Through these exercises, the consumer has stabilized his eyesight and is again able to manage many daily activities he had thought gone forever.

5. During the past year, LIFTT provided advocacy services to a middle school student and her mother in support of formalizing her 504 Plan. This student had just transitioned into middle school and been referred for a 504 Plan to help support her academically.

Unfortunately, although the school was implementing some helpful accommodations, they were not willing to formalize these accommodations into a written 504 Plan. The parents came to LIFTT to find out just what their rights were and what realistic expectations they might have for their child as she progressed through school. LIFTT's IL specialist Brent met with the student and her parents to explain in detail what a 504 Plan consists of and best practices in implementing the Plan. Staff then attended the interdisciplinary meeting with the parents, who were able to successfully advocate for implementation of a written Plan. The student benefitted by having her needs and accommodations put into place and by having a written document that would travel with her as she moved from teacher to teacher and then on into high school. This young woman with Cerebral Palsy needed extra time between classes, approval to use the elevator as needed, and to have all her teachers use the online assignment process so her parents could track and support her academic progress.