UCLA groups have created an Internet resource for people with disabilities

According to the latest U.S. Census statistics released in 1997, nearly one out of every five Americans has some level of disability.

Thirty-three million of those people list their disabilities as severe.

To provide assistance to some of these disabled individuals who wish to lead an independent life, UCLA Advanced Policy Institute of the School of Public Policy and Social Research and the Westside Center for Independent Living have teamed up to create the Living Independently in Los Angeles project, a new online resource for people with disabilities.
Alan Toy
Alan Toy, project director of the UCLA Advanced Policy Institute, works on his computer while looking at the Living Independently in Los Angeles Web site.
BRIDGET O'BRIEN/Daily Bruin Senior Staff

"This project takes the independent living information and referral concepts into the 21st century," said Alan Toy, project director at the Advanced Policy Institute. "With the use of this technology, we hope to bridge the technological barriers many disabled persons face, while making the concept of independent living a reality."

Launched in March of 2001, the LILA information system provides a central informational resource for a wide range of disabilities.

Over the next three years, LILA will receive a total of $1.5 million to build its infrastructure, including funds from the Community Technology Foundation of California, Microsoft Corporation and the GTE Foundation.

According to Toy, the City of Los Angeles has also approved a line item for the LILA project in the upcoming budget to be approved through the Department on Disability.

This collaboration of academic, private and public institutions looks to promote accessibility and a sense of community for those living with disabilities.

"These services are very much in demand, but it's an overwhelming task for those who need them to wade through all the agencies and programs involved," said Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles County Supervisor, in a statement. "Quick and easy online access will empower people with disabilities to take full advantage of the assistance available to them."

While most sites catering to people with disabilities often only provide information to other links, the LILA Web site targets resources specifically within the Los Angeles area.

A key feature of the site includes the geographic information system which allows users to locate the nearest services and recreation sites from its database.

The LILA project also calls for people with disabilities, their families and advocates to actively participate in creating the data or assets for the site.

For example, users who may know of a wheelchair repair shop in a particular area in the city may add this information by using an "add" template feature found on the Web site. The information is then checked for accuracy and entered into the mapping program.

Toy, who also uses a wheelchair because of having developed polio as a child, said he hoped LILA will bring together people with disabilities through its peer-driven concept.

"I'm really hopeful the use of this technology will move that philosophy of independent living a lot faster and deeper in terms of its potential for advocacy and for creating a community," Toy said. "This technology will allow us to become more effective in advocacy efforts in terms of getting news out and coalescing as a community around issues, events and activities."

For first-year social work graduate student Melanie Benn, the LILA site has been an invaluable source.

Despite an attack of bacterial meningiococal meningitis at age 18 that left her a quadrilateral amputee, Benn continues to participate in sports such as swimming. LILA features sports and recreation links have helped Benn continue her active lifestyle.

A San Diego native new to the Los Angeles area, Benn has also used LILA to gather housing information.

"Every student knows how challenging school can be, but a student with a disability, the challenges are tenfold," Benn said. "It's very reassuring that you have a network of support. The university supporting sites like this closes the gap between what's out there for a student with a disability and how they can access this."

According to John Whitbread, project manager of LILA for the Westside Center for Independent Living, about 600 users have logged onto the site since its launch.

Although the site specifically targets resources in the Los Angeles area, the special features have attracted Web surfers throughout the country, he said.

At UCLA, coordinators hope to use LILA as a model for other projects and will attend conferences throughout the country to present their findings and help bridge the technological gap for those with living with disabilities.

"The whole concept when we created this site was that if you can do this in L.A., you can probably do it everywhere," Toy said.

The LILA project serves as an extension of UCLA's commitment to bring accessibility to students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community.

Voted one of the most disabled-friendly campuses in the nation, UCLA's rich history in providing this environment stems from the 1940s and '50s with the influx of paraplegic veterans who began to attend the university, according to Doug Martin, special assistant to the chancellor.

Martin, a UCLA alumnus who uses a wheelchair because of polio, decided to attend UCLA for its favorable climate and services offered for students with disabilities.

"A wheelchair user was not an oddity on campus, but in many other universities they really didn't know what to do with wheelchair users because they couldn't get in and out of buildings, and the climate was pretty harsh," Martin said.

Now serving as the special assistant to the chancellor and coordinator for the Chancellor's Americans with Disabilities Act and 504 Compliance Office, Martin plays an important role in the planning of wheelchair pathways, renovating original campus buildings and the design of new buildings to create disabled access.

Other tools, including UCLA's Disabilities and Computing Program, which provide services such as screen-reading programs and special adaptive software, continue to open doors for disabled students.

As for the greater Los Angeles area, LILA plans to include data from the city that will provide detailed maps of curb cuts and accessible pathways in buildings as well as the nearest bus stops within the next few years, according to Whitbread.

Other assets the LILA site provides include a public forum where users can virtually chat and share information. Recent news concerning the disabled is regularly posted and updated on the site.

But online programs like LILA do have their challenges. Particularly, program coordinators are concerned about how to reach disabled people who don't have access to computers.

According to the Americans with Disabilities: 1997, a study done by the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate among 24- to 64-year-olds with minor disabilities is 10 percent, while the rate is 28 percent for those with severe disabilities.

Many of these individuals may not own a computer or have access to the Internet, Whitbread said.

But a recent proposal drafted by LILA's coordinators for a California endowment, may partially provide funds for more computers for Independent Living facilities.

Despite the drawbacks, innovative technology programs such as LILA seek to not only extend services to assist the disability community, but also provide an outlet where people with disabilities voice their concerns.

"It's a brave new world of technology," Toy said. "There's a lot of opportunity to create new things and we think that we've created something that's useful and interesting.

by Marjorie Hernandez (Daily Bruin Reporter)

source: Daily Bruin Online - May 31st, 2001

last update: 04-08-06
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