OT Month Feature

Our Occupational Therapists (OT) are experts in the area of home evaluations. We evaluate the needs of persons with disabilities or those with life changes due to aging. Thanks to grant funding and a contract with the Michigan Assitive Technology Program, we are able to serve people living in Ionia, Montcalm, Mecosta, Osceola as well Kent County.

In Kent County, if you are a low income senior, you may qualify for funding assistance for hearing aids with funding provided by Kent County Senior Millage. There are other devices that also assist those who are hearing impaired, this is Lester’s story, he lives in Mecosta county and was referred to us by his case manager from Area Agency on Aging. The referral was for a flashing doorbell he could see, and not rely on sound.

Lester’s family expressed concerns that he is not able to hear the doorbell when he is home alone.

Aware of Lester’s difficulty hearing, our OT team brought out a pocket talker for this evaluation to see if it would be helpful. He ended up liking and keeping the device, Lester said “I can hear so much better now”.

At a follow up home visit, a strobe doorbell was installed. One of our OT team members also noticed that Lester’s TV was at 88% volume. She told him about TV ears and he was interested. She installed those and again her was very pleased with them. Both the pocket talker and the TV ears allow you to hear better. We did a follow up email to the care manager, and gave his daughter resources for a more permanent, wired door bell. We gave them this resource.

This is just one example of the great work done daily by our therapists. Please contact Lisa at 616-949-1100 extension 255 if you or someone you know needs Assistive Devices. 


Disability Rights Blog

In a recent survey of number of attorneys in the Greater Grand Rapids area found that most attorneys do not have a very good understanding or awareness of Disability Law, or the Americans with Disabilities Act (2008).  The filtering question was: What are the four reasons that “reasonable accommodations” requests can be denied?

Answers are:

  1. The person requesting the “reasonable accommodation” is not disabled under the definitions of the Act and the medical condition(s) does not interfere with Life’s major functions.  
  2. The request causes an “undue burden”.  The Courts have interpreted this to include cost as a factor, (although there are very, very few cases where this had been a successful at trial).  The Courts have also ruled that a request that causes so much of or such an administrative burden, it would be impossible to grant such accommodations.
  3. The request for “reasonable accommodation causes peril, danger against the public or person or makes a direct threat.  This danger must be factual, immediate, and not a perceived notion by another person.
  4. The request does not undermine the credentials of the institution or require modifications that would fundamentally alter the nature of the institution which is being asked to provide the accommodation.  As, an example, an institution of higher learning such as college just cannot just provide a preferred grade just because a disabled person demands it.  There is no guarantee of outcome.

More and more the courts are looking at “being regarded as” with greater scrutiny on whether to provide “reasonable accommodations” or not to provide accommodations.

When building a case and formulating arguments with the above in mind will greatly improve the chances of a desired finding or favorable judgement.

Curt Haney BA, Veteran Apprentice


Disability Rights Blog

When should I inform my employer about my disability?

The first step is determining whether your employer is covered by the American’s with Disabilities Act or not.  Employers must have at least 15 employees in order to be covered by the Act.  

It would be wise to wait on disclosing a disability until a person in need of a reasonable accommodation.  If there is a need for reasonable accommodation to participate in the selection process such as interviewing and testing if required.

After an offer of employment is made and accepted, any requests for reasonable accommodations should be made if necessary to complete the essential functions of the job. The employer is allowed to request medical documentation to verify the need for a reasonable accommodation(s).

From the EEOC:

Can an Employer Require Medical Examinations or Ask Questions about a Disability?

If you are applying for a job, an employer cannot ask you if you are disabled or ask about the nature or severity of your disability. An employer can ask if you can perform the duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. An employer can also ask you to describe or to demonstrate how, with or without reasonable accommodation, you will perform the duties of the job.

An employer cannot require you to take a medical examination before you are offered a job. Following a job offer, an employer can condition the offer on your passing a required medical examination, but only if all entering employees for that job category have to take the examination. However, an employer cannot reject you because of information about your disability revealed by the medical examination, unless the reasons for rejection are job-related and necessary for the conduct of the employer’s business. The employer cannot refuse to hire you because of your disability if you can perform the essential functions of the job with an accommodation.

Once you have been hired and started work, your employer cannot require that you take a medical examination or ask questions about your disability unless they are related to your job and necessary for the conduct of your employer’s business. Your employer may conduct voluntary medical examinations that are part of an employee health program, and may provide medical information required by State workers’ compensation laws to the agencies that administer such laws.

The results of all medical examinations must be kept confidential, and maintained in separate medical files.

Curt Haney, Veteran Apprentice, Disability Advocates of Kent County


Mission Moment | End of the Year Update

Another year of impact at Disability Advocates of Kent County comes to an end and we are getting ready to turn the page and get started in 2020. We take a moment to pause and look back on the past year and what is in store for us next.

As I drove to meet a friend, I took a shortcut through a Westside Grand Rapids neighborhood and coincidentally drove by a house where we built a ramp five years ago. It was great to see how well the ramp has  withstood all that Michigan weather. This brought to mind the many lives our staff have been fortunate to be a part of over the last year. Unfortunately, people do not reach out during their sunny days. When people with disabilities connect with us, there is almost certainly inclement weather raging around them.

It is always our role to help persons determine what their needs, preferences, and goals are, and then by working alongside them, the impact that they desire is achieved. In 2019 that translates into the coordination of 37 ramps, three-hundred (300) home assessments, and over a thousand pieces of equipment all aimed at helping a person increase their independence at home through barrier removal.

Our Workforce Development Team worked with 230 people on vocational services and 123 students on pre-employment skills, which includes mock interviews to get them ready for the workforce. Over this past year we research and development, our Benefits Planning Services was launched in February 2019. Our three staff members have become certified by Cornell University to help in this field. The last six months of the fiscal year, we worked with 58 people to understand what benefits they currently have, and then how to go back to work and not jeopardize these benefits.

Our Core Services Team had over 4,500 Information and Referral calls that were completed this year. This consists of staff directing people to Disability Advocates staff resources, or to our community partners to help. We also had 14 people transition out of nursing homes and back to their own home.

Absolutely Accessible Kent officially rolled out with our Inaugural

Absolutely Accessible Kent workshop and luncheon. This event featured Ileana Rodriguez, an architect and former Paralympian. After the kick off, we rolled into the streets of downtown Grand Rapids! We reviewed accessibility services for various organizations and municipalities, in collaboration with Experience Grand Rapids, which provides accessibility reviews and they in turn put the information on their website and visitors guide. This partnership was recognized in March by an Innovation in Tourism Award awarded at the Governor’s Tourism Conference.

Yes, 2019 was a great year of impact. We look forward to you being a part of our work in 2020!


Dave Bulkowski – Executive Director


Disability Rights Blog

We will be featuring blog postings from our Veteran Apprentice, Curt Haney, as he takes a look at Disability Rights.

“I would like to comment on problems that some people with disabilities may have with their local authorities concerning property codes, zoning problems and reasonable accommodations of disabled citizens.

As a cost saving measure a lot of local towns, townships and other local authorities have downsized their workforce to include more part-time employees than full-time employees.  In doing so, the position of ADA coordinator was one position that was downsized and through attrition, the knowledge base of disability law (ADA and the Rehab Acts), has more or less disappeared. The Fair Housing Act may also have some jurisdictional elements also.

Anyone with these problems will likely find out when bills start appearing in their mail for code violations, or when they receive a warning letter.  Usually an email contact (preferred) or a phone call will remedy the situation, but then there are some authorities that completely refuse to grant “reasonable accommodations” because the authority does not understand what is required of them, by law under the Disability Laws, or know what the “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution is. This mostly occurs in smaller jurisdictions such as towns and villages.

Most of situations are the result of the disabled property owner not having the ability to maintain mowing the grass in summer or not shoving the sidewalk in winter and dealing with an authority that just does not understand or refuses to understand.

As a person with a disability that is unable to mow the grass or shovel the sidewall, a person can request “reasonable accommodation” under Title #2 of the ADA from the local authority that is enforcing the code violation.

Under Title #2 of the ADA, an authority that has more than 50 employees (both full and part time) MUST have a responsible designated employee to be the ADA coordinator, a person will sometimes find out that the authority does not have someone assigned to that position.  There has to be some sort of grievance policy published with appeal rights in case a request for reasonable accommodations is denied.  Both the name and grievance procedure has to be published and assessable to the public, usually on their website.  28 C.F.R. §§ 35.105, 35.150(d)

If the local authority does not have anything that is required under the law, just submit a FOIA request and have them explain to the judge why they do not have the coordinator, grievance policy or a location of such information that is available to the public.

The only rights you have are the ones you fight for.”

Department of Justice publications:

Case Law:


Absolutely Accessible Kent – Update


As 2019 winds down, I wanted to take a moment to recap the very impactful year of our Absolutely Accessible Kent project and to give you a few teasers for 2020.

With the weather being unseasonably cold these past few weeks, it might take you to January 30th when our first Absolutely Accessible Kent gathering of the year was postponed due to the Polar Vortex.  Thus, 2019 had a slower than anticipated beginning.  However, with the rescheduled gathering on February 11th, the year took off. 

The highpoint of our accessibility work was the recognition that Experience Grand Rapids and Disability Advocates received in March 6th.  Together, we were awarded the 2019 Governor’s Award for Innovative Tourism Collaboration in the non-traditional partnership category. The award acknowledged the efforts Experience GR has made in collaboration with us and others to create a better experience for people with disabilities looking to travel to Grand Rapids.  This included their staff and Grand Rapids Certified Tourism Ambassadors (CTA’s) receiving the Disability Decorum training.  Experience GR also worked with us to catalog over 60 local venues on their level of accessibility. The new Accessibility Navigator can be found under the newly implemented “Accessibility” landing page on the Experience GR website.

The highlight of the year happened on April 18th when we held the inaugural Absolutely Accessible Kent technical workshop and luncheon with Ileana Rodriguez.  Her firsthand experience as an architect, Paralympian and wheelchair user brought new understandings to all who attended.  A COUPLE MORE THOUGHTS  During her lunch presentation, Ileana told her story of growing up in Cuba as a person who acquired a disability and more about her work with the US and International Paralympic Committees.  (The story of her and her cousin riding the horse as the nun in charge looked on during the boring field trip demonstrated her tenacity and inability to take, “no” or “you cannot do that” for answers.)  Also during the luncheon, Mike Perry of Progressive AE gave a snapshot of their work on incorporating Universal Design at the Mary Free Bed YMCA and in other projects around the world.

At the end of that day, a group of persons with disabilities met with Ileana to discuss what they can do as persons with disabilities to be a part of Absolutely Accessible Kent.  This group then met formally in May and has now developed into the “Test Pilots.”  They have since been engaged with focus groups, site reviews, accessibility audits and more.  They also provided the firsthand knowledge and perspective that guided the Downtown Accessibility Charrettes so well.  However, I am getting ahead of myself.

In June, Mike and Jessica Griffis also of Progressive AE led a tour at the Mary Free Bed YMCA.  Interactive as the learning of Mike and Jessica was expanded by the Test Pilots who attended, especially those with visual impairments.

Back to the Accessibility Charrettes that occurred downtown Grand Rapids.  Design professionals, community advocates and Test Pilots came together July 23rd and 24th for the Inclusive Design Charrette.  Sponsored by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the Inclusive Design Charrette involved small groups of design professionals venturing out into the community with Test Pilots to assess the accessibility of several downtown venues and to evaluate the pathways there and back again. The initiative connected those who have experienced the most exclusion with those who are designing and planning the built environments of our community. By working together, they explored opportunities for innovation and prototype solutions that will be inclusive and sustainable.

At the end of August, draft prototypes were presented to and edited by the Test Pilots.  Since then, these designs have been honed more and further refined.  The Prototypes are being rolled out on Monday, November 4th.

With these high points in mind, 2019 also saw our team conduct a record number of accessibility reviews and consultations along with twice as many disability Decorum trainings as we had projected.

As for our plans in 2020, we have been working on additional experiential learning opportunities such as a tour or two along with some fun sketching and thinking.  Therefore, expect invitations and updates now again to pop into your inbox.

Finally, mark your calendar for the Second Annual Absolutely Accessible Kent Workshop and Luncheon which will be on Tuesday April 21, 2020.  We had such a great learning experience with Ileana, y’all asked for another.  The details are all but finalized and, once they are, you will be getting those along with the invite.

All of the work of Absolutely Accessible Kent, of course, cannot be done without you.  I hope you are intrigued by and can see how you can be engaged with our various activities. 

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, do not hesitate to send them our way.

We look forward to working with you soon as we create an Absolutely Accessible Kent!

Dave Bulkowski, Executive Director


Mission Moment: Doug’s Story

Throughout our lives we will experience many transitions; from school to work, a move across the country, becoming a parent, and so many more. One of life’s transitions that many of us don’t think about is the day we may not be able to live on our own, and will need the services of a nursing and rehabilitation facility. While a nursing home can be a great option and provide excellent care, there are many individuals that wish to transition from a nursing home and back to a community-based setting. The barriers facing an individual wishing to transition back to the community are numerous and unique; the Nursing Facility Transitions (NFT) program at Disability Advocates works with each participant to develop their own Person Centered Plan to address their barriers to improve the transition process, avoid re-hospitalization, and any other issues that can arise without proper planning and attention to detail.

In July, Disability Advocates Transition Navigator, Jeanette Tibstra, worked to successfully move two individuals out of nursing homes and into their own apartments. Doug and Julia have two very different stories, but each of them faced barriers to finding appropriate and accessible housing to meet their needs in the community. Earlier this month we met Julia.  Doug wanted the opportunity to share his story from his own experience, so let’s give it up for Doug!

Doug’s Story

My story begins on January 6th, 2018, when I woke up in the morning with no feeling from my belly button down. At the time, I was living in an apartment and doing pretty well on my own. I was especially worried, because I’d already had two previous back surgeries in 2002 and 2016 to treat arachnoid cysts in my T2-T7 vertebrae. I was admitted to a local hospital for testing, where I stayed for 4 days. After a three hour, full body MRI found nothing urgent, the doctors decided to send me to a nursing home for rehab. They thought that might help get me stronger. 

When I went to the hospital in January, I thought, “Not this again, why is this happening to me?” When I first learned I was going to rehab for therapy I thought it was okay, but I was scared about the outcome. I just knew I needed help. 

I was in rehab for about two months, and worked with PT and OT everyday on my balance, strength, cooking, and more. I also saw another surgeon in Grand Rapids who recommended we get a second opinion because nobody could figure out exactly what was wrong and I still didn’t have any feeling in my lower body. He suggested that we go to Henry Ford in Detroit, because they specialize in Neurological Disorders. 

In mid-March, we set out to Henry Ford in the ‘Big D’. We met another neurosurgeon who ordered another MRI and a Myelogram. Those tests found another arachnoid cyst, and that 8 inches of my thoracic spinal cord was tethered to my spine. They wanted to operate right away, and three days later I had a nine hour surgery on my back. From there I went to intensive care, the neuro floor at Henry Ford, a different rehab hospital in Detroit, a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Livonia. I finally arrived at my final nursing home in Grand Rapids in early May; it had been a long four months! 

I had mixed feelings when I got back to Grand Rapids. I wondered, how was everything going to work out?  I had both a negative and a positive outlook. In mid-February I received notice that I wasn’t receiving enough care to stay anymore, and I had just 90-days find a place to live.

I was also diagnosed with a learning disability in second grade. A learning disability is hidden. That was hard to deal with, but I handled it. Now I also have a physical disability, and I use a wheelchair and a walker; I can’t walk far, and I have to use this medical equipment to get around. Sometimes I feel like people might look at me funny, and I know I have to ignore the looks. I shouldn’t care what people think, but I do because I am a sensitive person. I know I am the person God meant me to be, and that means I am the person I should be.

In the middle of all this, I met Jeanette from Disability Advocates, so we could work to try and find me a place to live. I was sad about leaving and didn’t know if I could do it because I was still getting help with a lot of things. I really couldn’t have done it without Jeanette. She is a really outgoing lady. She makes me feel great about myself. I know I couldn’t have moved out of a nursing home without her help. Jeanette spent 2 hours with me every week from the beginning of March until the end of June. Together we called at least 183 Adult Foster Care homes, which is a lot of AFC homes! When I met Jeanette I was negative about how this was going to work out, and I wanted to stay at the nursing home. Jeanette encouraged me and told me I could do it on my own, and I think she is great at what she does. With her help, I realized that the nursing home wasn’t for me anymore. 

Jeanette helped me to furnish my apartment, buy the things I needed, and helped me move in. Disability Advocates is great at helping people with disabilities like me. They are on my team to succeed in the community. If you have a disability and you need help, call them and they will take care of you and your needs. Thanks to Jeanette and Disability Advocates. I have enjoyed working with them!

Doug, it has been my pleasure to work with you!     


Jeanette Tibstra, Transitions Navigator


Spotlight: National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Jon Cauchi, Youth Transition Specialist

The Youth Transition Department runs their GPS (Gaining Pre-employment Skills) program with local schools that are partnered with Michigan Rehabilitation Services. These programs allow youth with disabilities to be better prepared for entering the workforce. Students participating in this program get to practice filling out applications, create a resume, and learn how to interview.

By increasing the students understanding of what is expected with these key areas to gaining employment Disability Advoactes staff is able to increase the students access to employment. Furthermore the capstone to this program is a mock interview event where local employers volunteer to give the students the ability to practically use what they learned in the GPS program.

“The youth I work with gain more confidence and understanding on the process towards employment. We do this by talking about it as peers, breaking things down, and most importantly having fun”, says Jon Cauchi, YTS staff and co-creator of GPS program.

Jon continues, “The coolest thing is when I walk in to a school to start a new group and past students are asking their teachers if they can do the program again, because now that they have a job, they have seen the process, want to share their experience, and learn more.”

As part of the National Disability Employment Month, we spotlight mentoring and preparing our children with disabilities for the workforce.

For more information on this program, and other ways to get involved, contact us at 616-949-1100.


Jon Cauchi, Youth Transition Specialist

Nicole Rodammer, Development Director

Disability Impact Story

Monthly Highlight | Mission Moment

Why am I so passionate about supporting the Invest in Ability Dinner?

Because throughout my life, I frequently experienced being dismissed, excluded, ignored, unable to access buildings or recreational areas, and not welcomed because of my disability.  

Even more heartbreaking, I saw, and continue to witness, so many who encounter daily obstacles to live independent lives.  

I was born in June of 1949. Six months later, in December, the polio virus struck and my right leg affected. I grew up in a hospital amongst other babies and young children suffering from polio, blindness, congenital diseases, deafness and/or disfiguring burns. I remember when no parent was around, I looked into their saddened and frightened eyes, and empathized with them. 

Living with a serious limp and increasing limited mobility due to Post-Polio Syndrome has its’ challenges. I live in a home without steps and wide hallways and doors. I use a scooter to get to an outing that has mobility barriers.  

My friends and others with a physical challenge voice their complaints too:  

  • Most homes have steps; 
  • Inaccessible bathrooms; 
  • Broken sidewalks; 
  • No curb cuts; 
  • No automatic door openers into buildings, stores, or restaurants;
  • Narrow pathways in retail establishments; 
  • No tactile paving or audible street crossing signals for those experiencing seeing issues; 
  • Few audible descriptions or touch experiences of art or sculptures; 
  • No accessibility directly into the lake and river waters.  

Sadly, the list is ongoing. There are too many obstacles that prevent us from being independent and enjoying the experiences. I often state it is not the number of persons with disabilities we see in our community, but the increasing numbers who remain home in isolation that should concern us.  

I mention the obstacles to bring awareness. I mention the obstacles because Disability Advocates of Kent County works toward all of them in order to improve accessibility in West Michigan. I am committed to the organization’s mission, “to work alongside people with disabilities as they seek to lead self-directed lives and to advocate for accessible and welcoming communities.”

Independence, Employment, Affordable Housing, Transportation, Accessibility, Acceptance, Daily Dealing with a Disability and Health Issues, Advocating for Systems Change — that is why I support Disability Advocates of Kent County and especially the annual Invest in Ability Dinner!  

Please join us on October 23, 2019 to make our community truly accessible and inclusive for all.


Jenny Wood Shangraw, Community Volunteer, Advocate and Friend



Throughout our lives we will experience many transitions; from school to work, a move across the country, becoming a parent, and so many more. One of life’s transitions that many of us don’t think about is the day we may not be able to live on our own, and will need the services of a nursing and rehabilitation facility. While a nursing home can be a great option and provide excellent care, there are many individuals that wish to transition from a nursing home and back to a community-based setting. The barriers facing an individual wishing to transition back to the community are numerous and unique; the Nursing Facility Transitions (NFT) program at Disability Advocates works with each participant to develop their own Person Centered Plan to address their barriers to improve the transition process, avoid re-hospitalization, and any other issues that can arise without proper planning and attention to detail.

In July, Disability Advocates Transition Navigator, Jeanette Tibstra, worked to successfully move two individuals out of nursing homes and into their own apartments. Doug and Julia have two very different stories, but each of them faced barriers to finding appropriate and accessible housing to meet their needs in the community. Let’s meet Julia.

Julia’s Story

Julia was referred to our NFT program in November of 2018, as she wished to find a place to live in the community. At the time, Julia had been in the nursing facility for 3 ½ years! Julia had been living in her own apartment when she developed a bad infection in her knee. Despite going into a facility to treat her infection and build up her strength, Julia ended up needing a knee replacement, which unfortunately did not help her infection. Her left leg was amputated in January of 2019, shortly after being referred to the NFT program. It was after her amputation that Julia’s outlook changed… for the better! She’s said that she felt ‘set free’ following the amputation of her leg, and had the energy to move forward and plan her own life that didn’t revolve around constantly fighting off an infection. In April, Julia received notification that her name had come up on the Section 8 waiting list, and she and Jeanette attended her orientation together in May. That same afternoon, something just short of a miracle occurred when Jeanette found an opening for a one bedroom apartment at a Senior Complex that accepted Section 8! A couple of phone calls were made, and we learned there wasn’t a wait for the apartment, though it wouldn’t be available until August 1st. This gave Julia time to focus on continued rehab and building strength prior to leaving. We planned, and shopped until we dropped for Julia’s move!

Julia could not be happier to be out on her own again! When asked what has been the best thing about getting into her own apartment, she’ll tell you that she’s glad she’s not living in one little room anymore. “I’m home now, and this is MY home! I feel like I have a hundred little rooms I can go in; my own kitchen, my bedroom, my bathroom, my living room, and I can go down the hall when I want to do my laundry, and when I come back, it’s still my home!” It may sound simple, but having your own place to call home is something that many of us take for granted. It’s the big things, and also the little things, as Julia might say, “Don’t forget to say how happy I am to have GOOD toilet paper!”

Julia, we are so happy for you!


Jeanette Tibstra, Transitions Navigator