By: Scott Burlingame, Executive Director
Two staff members from Independence, Inc. recently had the opportunity to attend the 23rd Annual Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) Conference in Spokane, WA. The event is the largest annual gathering of rural disability advocates in the country. This year the program had over four hundred attendees, including over 120 youth with disabilities. Here are few highlights of the conference: Jamie Hardt and I had the chance to present as part of the pre-conference on “Back To Basics: Independent Living (IL) Skills Training”. We were part of a group of trainers that talked about outreach, the paperwork side of services, the art of facilitation, tools for building a workshop, and using evaluations efficiently. Group IL Skills training has always been an important part of how we provide services at Independence, Inc. and it was nice showcase our best practices on a national platform. Among the other highlights, the U.S. Election Assistance Commissioners held a town hall meeting on accessible voting in rural America. I had the chance to share with the commissioners that in North Dakota, the Centers for Independent Living surveyed hundreds of polling locations in the fall of 2015, and found only 5 were completely accessible for people with disabilities. The keynote speaker, Sarah Triano, is one of my personal heroes in our movement. Triano shared from her journey as a participant in the nation’s first Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) for Students with Disabilities in 1992, becoming an Executive Director of a Center for Independent Living in Silicon Valley, experiencing a mental breakdown requiring hospitalization, recovering and working for the Governor of California, and eventually becoming the current Director of Policy & Innovation for the nation’s largest managed Long-Term Services and Supports (MLTSS) company in the country. She then concluded her presentation with a Bruno Mars inspired rap about the importance of advocacy. Over the multiple day conference, I think we brought back substantial knowledge that will be of use to IL services in our area. However, the key for any conference like this is the relationships we build with like-minded people from across the country. Trying to promote Independent Living in a small rural community can often be a lonely job. One of the ways we increase our effectiveness is through the inspiring work of our colleagues in the field of disability advocacy. The APRIL Conference stimulates professional growth, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to continue learning about recent advancements in the Independent Living movement.