Your Gift Makes a Difference!

“Disability Advocates not only advocates for you, they help you be better at advocating for yourself.” 

Kristen Kelling knows. She first visited Disability Advocates of Kent County in 2016 after she had graduated from college. At that time, she participated in the Employability class especially enjoying the interactive nature of the sessions. As a person with a visual impairment, Kristen was anxious to know how best to put her college degree to work. Kristen remembered, “In the class, you didn’t just sit and learn; you practiced it and really learned!”   

Shortly after participating in the Employability class, Kristen started volunteering by placing Braille on Disability Advocates’ business cards. After that, she helped our Advocacy team with workshops that covered subjects like transportation and housing issues for persons with disabilities. 

And when you are a great volunteer (so much so that she was named “Volunteer of the Year” in 2017), more assignments come your way! Kristen became a front desk volunteer and then became active with our advocacy efforts such as when she spoke at Disability Advocates’ legislative coffees to ensure that our state representatives and other local elected leaders are fully aware of the challenges faced by and concerns of persons with disabilities along with the solutions she and others proposed. 

When Disability Advocates’ Absolutely Accessible Kent project started rolling through the streets of downtown Grand Rapids, it is no surprise that Kristen became involved. One event had Kristen working with a group of four with disabilities of all kinds and a few design professionals. They walked and rolled from the Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. office to the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel to check the accessibility of the entire hotel. “It was interesting to collaborate with folks with other disabilities.”   

Kristen thoroughly enjoys her work with Disability Advocates (and, like all of us, can’t wait to get back to the office and into the community in 2021!). She says she was a shy young woman when she first came to Disability Advocates and she didn’t know she could advocate for herself. “Disability Advocates gave me the tools for my toolbox to do better for myself.” 

“Give Disability Advocates a call. They will help you or they will know where you can get the help you need,” Kristen advises.

Your financial gifts allow Disability Advocates of Kent County to provide these opportunities and services to persons with disabilities and to work to improve our community’s accessibility for all. As we close out 2020 and look forward to an exciting 2021, we ask you to please consider supporting this important work. Donate here.

Always Keep Climbing

Susan* was just starting her attempt to climb out of a deep hole when she turned to Disability Advocates of Kent County for help. For years, she had faced severe mental health conditions. In this journey, she had been hospitalized, tried many kinds of treatments, experienced suicidal depression and even tried to take her own life.

Because of her disease, she hung out with what some would call “the wrong crowd” through those years. Her home furnishings were destroyed as a result and she nearly lost her home because she was unable to make her mortgage payment. As Susan says, “I had destroyed my life as I knew it.” 

After her attempted death by suicide, she was hospitalized again and received the medication and treatment she needed to begin the climb out of her hole. It was at this time, she realized that one of her friends had already helped her sign up for and receive Social Security Disability benefits. Unfortunately, it was all too confusing – she did not grasp the basic requirements of being a beneficiary, for example, she did not understand what she could and couldn’t do while receiving the benefits. Susan and her best friend, John*, came to Disability Advocates for help demystifying the benefits that were so hard to comprehend. At Disability Advocates, she met with Chloe, one of our Benefits Specialists, but surprisingly enough, that was not the first time she had met Chloe. Turns out Susan and Chloe actually worked together a few years back in a program helping adults with disabilities. Now, she needed Chloe’s help and Chloe was ready to work alongside Susan.

Chloe was able to help Susan and John navigate the ins and outs of receiving the disability benefits. Most importantly, knowing that Susan did want to go back to work when she was ready, Chloe helped her understand how future part-time work might affect the benefits. Susan said, “We felt a huge weight off our shoulders after talking with Chloe… Her help gave me the confidence to go on.”

Through much self-determination, getting on the right medications, receiving the treatment she needed, and learning how her benefits worked and that she could go back to work part time,  Susan began to put her life back together again. She started volunteering, took yoga classes, and realized she was ready and eligible for a part-time job. Today, Susan works as a Peer Support Specialist helping folks with extra life challenges receive the help they need. We are glad that we were here when Susan asked for help. Now, we are asking for yours. 

Your help is needed so that we can continue to provide these crucial services. Please consider a gift of support for Disability Advocates of Kent County, you can donate here.
PS – Due to the CARES Act, your gift to Disability Advocates of Kent County may provide added tax benefits for you only in 2020 even if you take the standard deduction. Read more on the IRS website linked here or be sure to check with your tax adviser. 


Impact of Your Support

As you know, to say that 2020 has been an unusual year is an understatement! Yet through it all, people living with disabilities and seniors have reached out to us for help and, thanks to your support, we have been able to provide our support covid-style. 

Our Workforce Development team pivoted and has offered many of our in-person classes through online methods. One class that we offered via Zoom is an employability workgroup specifically for veterans since many of the employment issues are different for veterans. Many veterans come to us with an established set of soft skills like communication, professionalism, and teamwork, while they need our help learning how to network, interview and present who they are in a civilian context. The classes have addressed these skills and have given the veterans an opportunity to discuss issues unique to veterans with other veterans (including the class facilitator).

While the stay at home order in April and May prevented our Occupational Therapy team from conducting assessments of people’s homes to ensure their safety, the team instead mailed needed equipment to them and checked back in with folks we hadn’t seen recently just to ask “Are you doing ok?” As soon as the order was lifted, our OT team was back out assessing homes for safety and making sure folks had the tools and knowledge to continue to live safely and independently in their own home.

Our Nursing Facility Transition Coordinator has helped 8 people transition from a facility to their own home during the pandemic. These people most times had no place of their own to return to, no furniture, bed, dishes, towels, etc. They had nothing but a desire to get into their own home. Our coordinator has been able to find them a place to live that they can afford and then helped them to furnish it the way that they wanted. All this has been done with lots of phone calls and internet shopping, and a true desire to make sure these folks get home.

These are just three examples showing that, even during a pandemic, Disability Advocates strives to meet our mission of working alongside people with disabilities as they seek to lead self-directed lives and to advocate for accessible and welcoming communities. We ask you to consider helping us continue our impact on the lives of folks like those represented in the snapshots above and so many others. Your gift truly makes this impact possible. To donate click here.


A Bathroom Joe Can Use!

Imagine not being able to take a shower or being able to get on and off the toilet independently. This was a reality that Joe faced daily for 3 years. Joe, a 75 year old gentleman, moved in with his son after having several heart surgeries and a total knee replacement. Disability Advocates was called by Joe’s son after years of him trying to take care of Dad in his inaccessible home. Our Occupational Therapy team did a home evaluation and recommended a ramp and several bathroom modifications including: grab bars, a tub transfer bench, hand-held shower, and a comfort height toilet. We worked with a local contractor in Joe’s area to get the modifications done.

After the work was completed, Joe shared with our staff that prior to the taller toilet being installed, his son had to take him to a nearby restaurant to use the public restroom because he couldn’t get up from the lower toilet in his home. Especially in these COVID-19 times, we are glad you can stay home and use your own bathroom, Joe.


Get to know Kanisha!

While Thanksgiving 2020 looks different in so many ways, we at Disability Advocates remain steadfast in our gratitude for your support. Thanks to your help, we have been able to continue to work alongside persons with disabilities throughout our community.

Our Pre-Employment Transition team has been no exception. They continue to work with high school and college-aged students who are looking to move ahead in their own lives. Remember how challenging high school was at times? Imagine adding to the usual peer pressure and various other challenges, difficulty learning in a traditional way, and an unstable home environment. It’s easy to imagine how one might fall through the cracks…(or worse). 

Instead, meet Kanisha. She is now 23 years old and employed full time at Spectrum Health. Kanisha plans to take advantage of the tuition assistance recently offered to essential workers to attend school to become a certified medical biller. She believes this is all possible because of the help she received from Disability Advocates of Kent County. “I don’t know where I would be without you.”  

Chloe, one of Disability Advocates’ Independent Living Specialists, met Kanisha while she was in high school. Kanisha was maintaining a 4.0 GPA in school and working, but it was a struggle. She wanted to move out on her own but didn’t know how. 

Disability Advocates helps people with disabilities manage the logistics of everyday life, and that is what Kanisha needed. Chloe was able to connect Kanisha with resources to obtain housing, furniture, and other housing necessities. Through the years, Kanisha has worked with our staff on budgeting, understanding her Social Security benefits, and job preparation including resume writing and interviewing skills.

As Kanisha says, “You provided me with what I needed to be an adult.” 

Today, Kanisha enjoys her job and her family. She is back living at home helping to take care of her mother as she goes through serious health issues, and the rest of the family. In her free time, she likes to give back by feeding folks experiencing homelessness. Quite a special young woman! 

It is such a joy to be able to work with motivated young adults like Kanisha and watch their progress. We look forward to seeing what you do next, Kanisha! To learn more about Disability Advocates programs and services click here.


Home for the Holidays! And just where Julie is thrilled to be!

There are some people you meet and you just walk away feeling better. It could be the warm smile on their face or their infectious positive attitude. And one of those people is Julie.  Julie is a bright and vibrant woman, a friend, and a host to all who wander her way. When Jeanette Tibstra, our Nursing Facility Transition (NFT) program coordinator, first introduced me to Julie, she was quick to offer a snack, introduce her plant pals, or show off her outstanding knitting talent. Her aura of positivity was made all the more impressive as she explained how she’d spent a year and two months in a nursing home after a spiral fracture to her femur, surgery, and a week in the hospital left her unable to return to her apartment. Following surgery, she was unable to bear weight on her leg for 5 months. The latter part of her stay in rehab was spent building up her strength and relearning many daily living activities.  

Over the past several months, we have all had to collectively redefine how we go about our daily lives and activities. COVID-19 has brought changes to how Disability Advocates staff interact with the people we help, but has not changed our dedication to those we serve. Julie can attest to this. 

Julie and Jeanette connected in mid-February of 2020, when the social worker at the Skilled Nursing Facility where Julie was rehabbing referred her to the NFT program. When Michigan’s Stay Home Stay Safe order was put into effect, the two had just a couple of in-person meetings to get acquainted and complete initial paperwork to begin planning Julie’s transition back to the community. The two kept in contact with long phone calls, texts, and emails.  

There is no such thing as a “normal” transition from a skilled facility to one’s own home, but COVID-19 added its own unique challenges. Jeanette and Julie worked through not being allowed to visit each other or any of the apartments that Julie was applying to. Working remotely, Jeanette assisted Julie in applying and securing a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, which was quickly due to expire with Julie’s upcoming 62nd birthday just 6 weeks after receiving the voucher. The pressure was on to find housing and do so quickly! At many points throughout the process Julie was overwhelmed. Jeanette was there to help and encourage her, and Julie realized that leaving the nursing facility was not only possible, but what she wanted. Plus, she would not have to do it alone.   

After months of long applications, waitlists, and a couple of nail-biting extensions for her housing voucher, things began to fall into place. Jeanette received an exciting phone call about an accessible apartment in an assisted living community. This community would allow Julie’s dream of independent living to be realized with the peace of mind that her care needs would be met. Now they could focus on shopping for all the things that would make this apartment uniquely Julie’s.  

When Julie’s transition day finally arrived, she admitted to shedding some tears. The big day was 6 months in the making and Julie was anxious about what might happen after she returned to apartment living. The second Julie crossed the apartment’s threshold she walked into an apartment that matched her personality and ultimately felt like home, which she described as feeling good.  

After spending time with Julie and learning about her experience with Jeanette and transitioning into the community, I was consistently blown away by the resilience and positivity of this kindhearted woman. After spending that much time in the facility, having some “good toast” that had crunch was something that Julie was really looking forward to. We are happy to report that Julie has all that she needs in her apartment to make some good toast whenever she wants!   

Julie, we are so glad you are home for the holidays! Enjoy!  


Veterans, we want to work with you!

Kent County Veteran Services and Disability Advocates of Kent County have teamed up to provide services to veterans with disabilities and their families. The purpose for this funding is to help veterans that are not eligible for other programs but are still in need. 

Below are some areas of what Disability Advocates can help with. 

Occupational Therapy  

  • Home assessments for accessibility in residential homes based on the needs of the individual.  
  • Coordination with builders and contractors that can implement recommendations  
  • Assistive Technology devices and durable medical equipment  

Additional Independent Living Needs  

  • Financial assistance with rent/deposit, utility bills, or other bills
  • Home repairs for safety purposes 

Employment Related Expenses

  • Car repairs  
  • Tools or clothing necessary for employment 
  • Transportation costs until the person receives their first/next paycheck.  
  • 20-hour job skills workshop* that helps people with disabilities understand their rights under the ADA as well:
    • Helps with resume writing
    • Interviewing
    • Job exploration/shadowing

*New session starts the third Monday of each month. Contact John Koon at 616-323-2249 or by email at  for more about the workshop or to get signed up!

Benefits Planning 

  • For people who are receiving social security disability benefits, Medicare, Medicaid, other state assistance.  
  • Key outcome of this service is for the person to gain an understanding of how your benefits will be impacted if you do go to work.
  • Plan is individualized and specific to each person’s situation

This is not an all-inclusive listing of services that can be provided. Contact Trina Edmondson by phone at 616-323-2203 or by email at to see if you qualify.


Monthly Highlight | Veteran Supports

Sandra Conley joined Disability Advocates of Kent County in June, 2020 as a Veteran Apprentice with the hope of learning skills that will help her find meaningful employment. The Veteran Apprentice program provides services and assistance needed to enable veterans with service-connected disabilities to achieve maximum independence in daily living. This program also provides the tools necessary for obtaining and maintaining suitable employment. 

In February, 2019 Sandra endured a 14 hour surgery on her heart to regulate her pacemaker. Through the months of her recovery, she became discouraged hearing from so many about what she can’t do rather than what she can.  After that discouraging time, she told herself that she had made it through the surgery for a reason, and said to herself “I am better than this.” She believed that the best years of her life were ahead of her and told her doctor “I am ready to go back to work.”

Sandra served in the US Army for 11 ½ years. Because of her service she was eligible for benefits through the Veterans Administration, and she took advantage of that help. Since she had been off work for quite a while, she knew she needed to upgrade her skills and get some experience in today’s workplace. Her Case Manager from the VA suggested Disability Advocates Veteran Apprentice program, she applied and was accepted into the program.

In the two months that Sandra has worked here, she has become part of our family and as she says “I am doing the best I can and trying to learn more.” She has accompanied our OT team on home visits and delivery of equipment to help folks become safer in their own homes. One visit was to deliver a knee scooter to a woman who had just had hip surgery. As Sandra was helping explain how to use it, she felt water dripping on her. She looked up and the woman was crying. “You just made my day. Now I can get around my house without pain.” And Sandra responded “Helping other is what I do.”

Sandra will be with us for a year. “The experience here is overwhelming and my confidence is coming back. The idea that I can help someone else feel better is wonderful.” She is excited to continue to learn new skills and be able to demonstrate that compassion she has for others. And that second phone number – Sandra says her goal is to add a work phone number to her home number – just like most other people. And we believe she will!

To learn more about our Vocational Rehab program along with other Veteran Supports click here. 


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