Saturday, February 20, 2010

Chicago's Access Living works with U.S. Census so it can better reach people with disabilities

From Medill News Reports:

A new Chicago census initiative is working to ensure that people with disabilities participate in the 2010 census, a move that could bring new sources of revenue to the financially strapped city.

The U.S. census, conducted every 10 years, determines how more than $400 billion in federal funding is distributed throughout the United States. Used for transit, housing, health services and workforce development, this money is vital to the well-being of any city or state. In 2000, only 65 percent of Cook County residents participated in the census.

As part of a larger campaign targeting historically undercounted groups, the Chicago Disability Complete Count Committee is launching a multi-tiered initiative to get people with disabilities involved in the count, which begins in March. Comprised of public, private and non-profit groups that serve people with disabilities throughout the city, the committee hopes its distinctive connections will increase participation.

Among its efforts will be distributing flyers, visiting institutions and social centers where people with disabilities routinely congregate and broadcasting announcements.
"There are many sub-communities within the disability community,” said Marca Bristo (pictured), president and CEO of Access Living, a group that services people with a variety of disabilities. “[Census workers] don’t know how to reach us. They don’t know the best way to get the word out in natural places where people with disabilities will find that information.”

There are no direct benefits specifically for people with disabilities since the standard 10-question census form does not ask whether a person is disabled. Still, committee members note that everyone benefits from a complete count.

Many do not participate in the census simply because they don’t know about it. With an unemployment rate of approximately 60 percent, a large number living in institutions and a litany of mobility problems, people with disabilities are more sheltered than the general population, experts say. They often never see census advertisements.

The disability committee will educate through grassroots organizing. For example, Access Living will visit deaf social clubs, popular gathering places that Bristo said most non-disabled people don’t even know exist. And Karen Tamley, commissioner for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, recorded three public service announcements.

Knowing about the census isn’t the only problem. Many aren’t able to fill out census forms without assistance.

People who are blind or vision impaired don’t always have access to Braille forms, people with learning disabilities can’t always read the form, and people with mental disabilities often see it as some type of privacy intrusion, said Greg Polman of the Chicago Lighthouse, a center for the blind and vision impaired.

People with disabilities are sometimes fearful of relying on others to complete census forms for them because some find it intrusive, Bristo said. Four assistance centers have been set up throughout the city so that people with disabilities can complete the census in safe and helpful environments.

Despite the fact that people with disabilities have been undercounted for decades, and many of the same obstacles from earlier censuses still exist, the committee is hopeful its ‘for people with disabilities, by people with disabilities’ approach will make a difference.

“Our committee is really made up of people with disabilities and people in the disability community, versus some outside entity,” said Tamley. “We’re getting down to the ground and using language that will reach these people.”