Latinos in Action member setting an example and breaking stereotypes

Story and gallery by EMMA JOHNSON

Yuritzi Huerta Campos is an 18-year-old senior at Jordan High School. Campos is the first U.S. citizen in her family. Both of her parents were born and raised in Mexico. Her parents moved to Utah before her and her two sisters were born in hopes of giving them a better life with more opportunities.

Campos joined Latinos In Action (LIA) four years ago when she was s freshman at Jordan High School. According to the Latinos in Action national webpage, there are LIA groups established in eight states, in over 200 schools, with 8,000-plus total student members.

Campos’ two older sisters participated in LIA when they attended school. She saw how their student involvement with LIA changed their high school experience. Hispanic cultures dedicate great respect to their rich heritage. Yuritzi appreciated how LIA also allowed her sisters to express and honor their culture through a public group. She says joining LIA has made them all feel like they are a part of something bigger. “Being able to give out a part of ourselves and serve other is what I love,” Campos says.

“In school, you have a place you belong,” she says when talking about why she decided to join LIA when starting high school. Latinos In Action was created in 2001 in Provo, Utah, by Jose Enrique. According to the Latinos In Action webpage when Enrique was in high school, he recognized the lack of programs created for Latinx students to participate in.

After high school, Enrique attended Brigham Young University and earned a bachelor’s degree in Education and Spanish, a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership.

Enrique became an administrator himself and was again reminded of the lack of academic resources available to Latinx students. He felt Latinx youth were often disengaged at school and shunned for their cultural heritage. The disconnect was unacceptable in his eyes, so he created the Latinos In Action.

Matthew Bell, a foreign language teacher at Jordan High School, said in an email that the Latinos In Action program was first presented to Jordan High nearly 10 years ago by founder Jose Enriquez. “Through the presentation, we immediately saw this program as an opportunity to help Latino Heritage students become more involved in the school and in their community,” Bell says. “Another selling point was the strong emphasis the program placed on post-secondary study and achievement.”

Campos says she feels her LIA membership has gotten more impactful as the years have progressed. When LIA was first introduced to her school, she says it wasn’t widely known or understood. “We wanted to change that,” Campos says. Now, LIA hosts assemblies and plays a role in the Student Government program.

The Latinos In Action program emphasizes serving the community. Campos and her LIA classmates spend two days a week at a nearby special-needs school, Jordan Valley, where they help those with severe disabilities communicate through an assisted software called EagleEyes.

EagleEyes is a mouse replacement system for the computer that tracks eye movement and converts it into mouse movement. The system is primarily used to assist those who are profoundly disabled. Campos spends a few hours a week helping different students learn and communicate through the software.

She says her time spent using EagleEyes has changed her life. Debbie Inkley, Executive Director of OFOA says “The EagleEyes-LIA Program changes lives.” Inkely expresses the beauty of the two groups working together. She says it’s changing the volunteer’s lives through their service but giving the Jordan Valley students the peer experience of a lifetime.

LIA values have influenced all aspects of Campos’ life. “LIA setting self aside to help others grow, to build a stronger community.” She is planning on attending Utah Valley University for a year then she hopes to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The service opportunities through LIA has played into her decision to serve a mission and her decision to help people better their lives.

The Latinos In Action program was created to empower Latinx youth through their culture and prepare them for college and leadership opportunities. “We can be perceived as minority, going on a lot about drugs and criminals and all that stuff but we’re really not here to do that. We are here to show the best of ourselves,” Campos says.

LIA activity has shown Campos’ classmates what LIA is all about. She says many of her LIA peers were raised with very little. Most of their parents moved to the States to give their children a better life and a chance at an education. She says LIA helps her show her peers that you don’t have to come from much to break commonly believed stereotypes.

Campos uses her LIA membership to show everyone around her that your time and energy can be spent how you choose and that not all Hispanics fall under brutal stereotypes. She says, “We can show we aren’t that and that we can show love and give service.”

Photos courtesy of Opportunity Foundation of America.

Latinos In Action members provide aid to classmates with disabilities

Story by EMMA JOHNSON

Jordan High School Latinos in Action (LIA) members are changing the lives of their non-mobile, non-verbal classmates at Jordan Valley School for the disabled. According to the Latinos in Action national webpage, there are groups established in eight states, in over 200 schools, with 8,000-plus student members. LIA members at Jordan High assist their disabled classmates across campus using EagleEyes.

EagleEyes is a mouse replacement system for the computer that tracks eye movement and converts it into mouse movement. The system is primarily used to assist the profoundly disabled. This technology was developed at Boston College and through an exclusive licensing agreement The Opportunity Foundation of America (OFOA) owns the technology and now manufactures, trains and distributes the technology.

Matthew Bell, a foreign language teacher at Jordan High, says in phone and text interviews that the Latinos in Action program was presented to Jordan High 10 years ago by the founder, Jose Enriquez. Bell says through the presentation he immediately saw the program as an opportunity to help Latino heritage students become more involved in the school and in their community. “Another selling point was the strong emphasis the program placed on post-secondary study and achievement,” Bell adds.

There are 24 Jordan High School Latinos in Action volunteers who spend one hour two days a week volunteering at Jordan Valley School. Eighteen of the students facilitate either the EagleEyes or Camera Mouse technologies with nine Jordan Valley School students. LIA members have been volunteering in the classroom for five years.

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Latinos In Action students assisting a Jordan Valley student with EagleEyes. Photo courtesy of Opportunity Foundation of America.

Debbie Inkley, executive director of OFOA, says she has witnessed many student volunteers bring small gifts to their disabled peers. She sees students go above and beyond their responsibilities every day. “Many Jordan High School students will call me if their Jordan Valley School peer is not at school to check and see if their peer is sick,” Inkley says. Both groups of students create bonds with one another. The love and equality between students is evident in their work and is demonstrated in their progression, Inkley explains.

LIA volunteers not only assist their fellow classmates in academic progress but also have given them the gift of friendship. “Jordan Valley School students are elated when they see their Jordan High School Latinos In Action volunteers. They love working with peers and having friendships,” Inkley says.

EagleEyes can be a very intense situation. A lot of patience and care is required of all volunteers assisting the disabled students. Matthew Bells says he has seen students’ experiences with working with EagleEyes benefit them in and outside the classroom. “I think the biggest lesson learned at EagleEyes for my students is that there is a person to be discovered in everyone they meet,” Bell explains.

EAGLEEYES

EagleEyes volunteers prepare the software for student use. Photo courtesy of Opportunity Foundation of America.

To become eligible for EagleEyes users usually have difficulty communicating or can’t communicate at all. EagleEyes gives them the opportunity to express themselves through words, games, and learning. LIA students are helping their fellow peers communicate in a way they never dreamed of.

LIA members have learned to understand skills bigger than they could have ever expected, Bell says. “Some other little lessons are that they have learned patience, the importance of avoiding multitasking and take a process one step at a time, and perhaps most important they have learned to put all electronics aside and really focus on the person and the task,” Bell says. The growth he has witnessed in LIA volunteers stretch beyond themselves and achieve goals the program was created to help achieve.

The program has helped students reach new perspectives in terms of how they see their parents’ sacrifices, how they see their community and how they see themselves in their future community. Bell says many of his LIA students will be first-generation college students and graduates. “They know very little about how to get there, how to pay for it, or what it takes to be successful in comparison to high school,” Bell says. They are willing to make the sacrifices and being a part of Latinos in Action helps them realize the importance of a successful future.

Camila Gallardo, a senior at Jordan High School, has been a member of LIA for four years. She says in a text interview that LIA has given her another group to call family. She says being a member has helped her to become more confident in herself and made her want to embrace her culture. “I’m so happy Latinos in Action has given me opportunities like volunteering with these kids because it has made me a better person overall and has made me learn so much that you just don’t learn in a classroom setting,” Gallardo says.

“I have had such an amazing time volunteering at Jordan Valley doing EagleEyes,” she says. “It is something that I always look forward to because it’s always just amazing to watch these kids smile when they interact with us.” LIA has created an opportunity for Gallardo to grow beyond herself. Participants of LIA focus on skills that will help them prepare for college and career readiness and leadership development skills. She feels her time spent volunteering with LIA and EagleEyes has not only helped her through high school but also will assist with her professional success.

Latinos In Action school and community involvement has taught students personal skills desired for future success and given Jordan Valley School classmates the opportunity to experience genuine peer support. “The EagleEyes Latinos In Action program changes lives,” OFOA Executive Director Debbie Inkley says. All who are involved with the program say it has been fulfilling and uplifting in every way.

Hispanic belief system that the family is the heart and focus of life

Story and photo by EMMA JOHNSON

The family is the heart of the Hispanic culture. Children taking care of their parents as their parents took care of them in their childhood is a “circle of life” concept the Latinix communities value. Birth and death are interesting life experiences. Latinx people are viewed as family-centered with divine importance placed on caring for the young and elderly. Learning from family members’ wisdom that will benefit future generations is an honorable life adventure Hispanic families respect.

A 2014 poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Hispanics have a higher likelihood of caring for their elderly relatives and having it be a positive experience. The poll concluded that Hispanic families have reported a greater percentage of their caregiving being less financially stressful.

Alex Guzman, president and CEO of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, feels the opportunity to take care of his elders enhances his family centered beliefs. “In the Hispanic culture, they will take care of their parents because their parents took care of them.” For him and his family, the statement is as simple as it sounds. Guzman says assisted-living homes are a rarity in his home county of Guatemala. The family is the center. Whatever sacrifices need to be made to ensure fulfillment of the circle of life will be made.

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The Livas family represents the circle of life. Standing from left: Norma, Manny, and Ed. Sam is seated

Latinx communities are loyal to their heritage.  They are proud of who they are and willing to share their rich culture with others. Sam Livas is a Mexican-American who prides himself on his family-oriented lifestyle. Livas’ mother grew up in Cananera Sonora, Mexico, and his father in Tucson, Arizona. His mother migrated to the United States to marry his father. Livas was born in California but said he would not trade his Hispanic upbringing up for the world.

Growing up, Livas said he watched as his mother cared for her elderly parents. “Seeing my mother and her siblings take care of their mother is where I feel or saw the need to take care of my own parents.” The firsthand experience helped him to realize the cultural importance and value of caring for those he loved.

According to a study conducted by the University Of Austin, Texas, despite high levels of need, Hispanics shun nursing homes and remain where they are even with compromised health conditions. It isn’t uncommon for children caretakers to fail meeting the needs of their elderly relatives. Most family members aren’t medical professionals. The looming pressure of where family members with health complications will live daunts and alters cultural customs.

Livas said in an email interview that his Mexican-American values have given him a clearer understanding of why many Americans put their parents into nursing centers. “I don’t fault those that CAN provide better care for their loved ones.” He said he feels assisted and rehabilitation homes should not be a substitute for family, but used as a resource that benefits all. “Don’t forget to call and visit,” Livas added, there is no better emotional love than a family can provide.

Latinx communities rely on family units as human bodies rely on their heart. Family belonging and involvement is the foundation of their lives. Guzman, with the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said, “If you have to work three jobs with the intention to provide for your children, you do.”

 

Chandler Hunt and the gift of sight

Story and photos by CALLEN CRENSHAW

How would life be for a person who does not have use of one of their five senses? Can someone with that type of disability live a normal life?

Chandler Hunt is now a senior at the University of Utah.

Chandler Hunt is now a senior at the University of Utah.

From a very young age, Chandler Hunt learned how to do “normal” tasks without the use of one of these senses, his eyes. As a result, Chandler went about his day feeling and listening for social and emotional cues.

Chandler was diagnosed as legally blind at age 5. His father, Bill, had a really difficult time grasping the reality of his son’s disability. The formal term for this condition is called dislocated lenses. The lenses in Chandler’s eyes became more dislocated with time. The timeline for this process depends on the gene itself, which is hereditary.

Bill said that his side of the family produces this gene and every one of his siblings suffers from it. One positive aspect of his son’s diagnosis is the technology factor. “Technology never ceases to amaze me, because Chandler was diagnosed so young doctors have been able to start to reverse his eyesight,” Bill said.

However, he realizes that the condition has made his son learn everything in a different way, a more difficult way. As a father he said his son has been labeled as “different” since he lost his eyesight completely in high school.

Bill Hunt enjoys hiking in Cottonwood Canyon when he visits Chandler in Salt Lake City.

Bill Hunt enjoys hiking in Cottonwood Canyon when he visits Chandler in Salt Lake City.

Chandler spent his childhood participating in monthly doctor visits and adding what he recalled as “what felt like inches to my lenses.” With each of these visits the prescription in his glasses became stronger to the point where he eventually could only see through a small portion of his lenses. Bill said Chandler described the way he sees people as “little specks or dots with fuzziness attached to them.” This was concerning to him as a father.

The next big hurdle in Chandler’s life was his driving test. Although he struggled through school at Cornwall Central High School in California, he was able to get by with the help of many teachers, counselors and friends. But the driving test was something he had to accomplish on his own. He did not pass due to his eyesight. It was then that Bill realized his son needed to see the best surgeon and inquire about the latest technological advancement, LASIK eye surgery.

Chandler began physical therapy for his eyes and began preparing for what would total 19 surgeries. However, the breaking point happened when Chandler participated in a risky surgery that had a small chance of being successful in recovering his vision.

“I was completely against the surgery,” Bill said. In fact, he forbid Chandler to participate in it because it was so risky. “I didn’t think he understood the risk he was taking. If it didn’t work he would lose his eyesight completely, forever.”

This was a risk Chandler wanted to take. When he turned 18 he had the surgery.

He participated in a case study along with 12 other people. Out of that group, he was one of three who had a successful outcome. Although his recovery was two months, Chandler discovered that the surgery had reversed his eyesight and he was now able to learn how to read and write.

Physical Therapist Susan Bateman said in a phone interview that Chandler was one of the “most unique cases I have seen thus far in my practice.”

That is because Chandler is among 3 percent of the population that has the same form of the disability. A much higher percentage of Americans are legally blind due to other causes.

Although Chandler regained his eyesight, other patients like Chloe Hart did not have the same outcome. Hart says she knew the risk she was taking in having the surgery and it was “painfully hard to watch some of the patients receive their eyesight while the rest of us were left blind to some degree.”

Chandler feels bad for other patients like Hart who did not have the same result as he did. However, he believes that God knows what is best for everybody and that he needed the “gift of sight at that point in (his) life.”

Chandler and Bill Hunt enjoy spending time with each other outdoors.

Chandler and Bill Hunt enjoy spending time with each other outdoors.

Chandler is grateful for his eyesight and unlike most people, he does not take it for granted because he knows what it is like to not have it.

“The world is a very beautiful place, and I can say that because for the majority of my life I have not been able to see it,” he said. “But I have experienced it and I have seen what it offers people and that gives me strength. Strength to overcome my newfound challenges and the strength I need to make a difference.”

Marriage equality for people with disabilities

Story and slideshow by ANGIE BRADSHAW

Learn more about marriage equality for people with disabilities.

According to the Cornucopia of Disability Information, approximately 43 million Americans, or almost one out of five people, have a disability, making it the largest minority group in the U.S.  They are also among some of the poorest individuals. According to The World Bank, about 20 percent of the world’s poorest people have some kind of disability.

Employment is another challenge faced by people with disabilities. According to the United States Department of Labor, the 2013 unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 13.1 percent compared to 6.8 percent for people without a disability.

This could be the reason why so many individuals rely on assistance such as Social Security to help sustain a healthy living.

Among the many decisions faced by people with disabilities, marriage can be one of the most difficult.

Only 50 percent of individuals with a severe disability end up getting married, according to the Americans with Disabilities report.

The Utah state government assists single people with disabilities to help cover costs and provide accommodations where needed. But, if those individuals decide to get married, they could lose all their state-funded benefits or they could be substantially decreased. This leaves them to decide between marriage or continuing to receive benefits.

According to the Social Security Administration, the 2012 rates and limits are:

  • SSI will change from individual rate to couple rate.
  • If two people who receive Social Security Income (SSI) get married, they automatically receive 25 percent less.
  • Income limits: You can’t make more than $698 per month individually or $1,048 for couples to qualify for SSI.
  • Asset limits: You can’t have more than $2,000 individually or $3,000 as a couple to qualify. All of the following are counted as assets: cash, checking account, savings account, stock/bonds, and motor vehicles (except for one). If you exceed these amounts you do not qualify for SSI.

The difference in the benefits amounts between married and unmarried individuals is termed the “marriage penalty” by the National Council on Disability. Furthermore, the SSI can deem a couple married even if they are not legally wed. According to an article in Apostrophe magazine and the Social Security Administration, “The Social Security policy states that a man and a woman who live in the same household are married for SSI purposes if they hold themselves out as husband and wife to their community.”

Disability Rights North Carolina reported, “SSI beneficiaries are deterred from marrying because it will cause a reduction in crucial benefits that are already hardly enough for basic food, shelter and disability related expenses.” The document further noted, “For example, a national housing study published in 2007 found that the national average rent for a studio efficient apartment was more than a full SSI monthly benefit.”

With the cost of living on the rise, the amount of SSI benefits becomes more and more inadequate.

Drew Hanson, a senior at the University of Utah, has dealt firsthand with this. Hanson was diagnosed at age 4 with hearing loss. His parents made the decision to get him hearing aids, which he extremely disliked at first. “I would take them off and throw them across the room,” Hanson said. He has since gotten used to them and continues to use his hearing aids on a daily basis and uses lip reading as a back up.

At 24 years old he met Becky, who later became his wife. They waited two full years before finally deciding to get married. They had to weigh the options of having his benefits decrease and get married or hold off. Ultimately, they decided to get married.

Luckily, his wife got a job with the state and they now have benefits through her work..

They now have a 2-year-old daughter named Takira, which means, “treasure” in Japanese.

In several online articles many people believe the marriage penalty is an “anti-family” law and that something should be done. Citizens are advocating the marriage penalty and getting petitions signed, including a Facebook page called “Marriage Equality for People with Disabilities.” Their mission statement says, “Fighting for the right for people with disabilities to be married in all 50 states without financial, medical and economic penalties.”

There is also a website called thepetitionsite.com whose goal is to get 10,000 signatures to remove the marriage penalty against people with disabilities. So far, the petition has only 846 signatures.

Carly Fahey, also a senior at the University of Utah, has cerebral palsy. She said many people with disabilities wait a very long time before getting married or decide not to do it all because of the negative impact it could have on their lives.

“I’m confident that marriage will be wonderful,” Fahey said, “but figuring out the legal details will be an obstacle for sure. Something needs to be done.”

Randal Serr, director of Take Care Utah said in a phone interview that many people with disabilities are having difficulties with health insurance coverage and knowing where to start.

TCU provides assistance to those who are uninsurable because of their disability and pre-existing conditions. Employees work with individuals as well as 13 organizations in the Salt Lake Valley to navigate the health insurance process.

Serr said many health insurance companies are reluctant to insure individuals with disabilities because the state provides coverage through Medicaid and Medicare. Furthermore, he explained that under those programs there are many stipulations making it difficult to qualify and stay qualified.

For instance, the Social Security office decides who is considered disabled. People are asked a series of questions such as: are you working, is your condition severe and is your condition listed as a disabling one. From there, staff decide whether individuals fall under the disabled category.

“With Obamacare I think it will drastically change and be a positive direction for people with disabilities, on the application they don’t ask about pre-existing conditions,” Serr said. “In fact the only health-related question they ask, is if they use tobacco.”

As for marriage the fight continues in creating equality. Blogger Ashley Lasanta wrote, “To love and be loved in return is inherent to all human beings. To overlook or deny the rights of the disability community in their capacity to love and be loved undermines our ability to truly fulfill our commitment to better the lives of others.”

Utah’s employment resources for people with disabilities

Story and slideshow by PAUL S. GRECO

Meet Corby Campbell and learn more about his success story.

People with disabilities bring valuable skills to the workforce. For example, in 2008 the National Science Foundation reported more than 600,000 scientists and engineers in the U.S. have disabilities.

Some top innovators have learning disabilities, including chief executive officers of Ford Motor Co., Xerox, Kinko’s and Charles Schwab. Apple’s Steve Jobs had dyslexia.

The federal government and each state provide means for people with disabilities to receive assistance with getting employment.

The Utah State Office of Rehabilitation (USOR) is located in downtown Salt Lake City inside the Utah State Board of Education building. Its mission is to assist eligible people with disabilities in obtaining employment and increasing their independence.

The USOR has four divisions: the Division of Rehabilitation Services, Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Division of Disability Determination Services.

Kyle Walker was recently selected as the director of the DRS. He’s been employed with USOR for 13 years.

Born in California and raised in New Mexico, Walker received his Bachelor of Science in sociology and Master of Rehabilitation Counseling degrees from Utah State University. He’s lived in Utah for 20 years.

Walker said every counselor working for USOR has a master’s degree and is licensed with the National Board for Certified Counselors in addition to being state certified.

“So when a person comes in our door,” Walker said, “we’re not just looking at ‘let’s go get you a job at McDonald’s.’”

Instead, clients are given an assessment by a certified counselor. This evaluation is to help the client make meaningful choices for employment, taking into account their interests, aptitudes, abilities and values.

But first, a client must be considered eligible for counseling.

As one of the four divisions within USOR, The Utah Division of Disability Determination Services (DDS) is designed to determine if a claimant is disabled or blind.

Because 40 percent of USOR’s clients have mental illness and 25 percent have cognitive disabilities, evidence must first be obtained. To attain evidence, a claimant’s medical records are sought. If that evidence is unavailable or insufficient to make a determination, the DDS will arrange for a consultative examiner’s evaluation in order to gain additional information.

After sufficient information is gathered, a determination is made by a two-person team consisting of a physician or psychologist and a disability examiner.

If the claimant is found eligible, employment counseling is conducted under the DRS’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program.

After completing the assessment, determinations are made for clients regarding not only their interests and abilities, but also what is needed to obtain employment.

For example, if it’s decided that schooling is the best option, VR will pay for the client’s tuition costs. If transportation is an issue, VR will provide travel arrangements to work sites through UTA or by making special accommodations to the clients’ vehicles — things like hand controls on steering wheels or wheelchair lifts.

If working for an employer is not the answer, USOR will fund self-employment opportunities.

“Really, our program is whatever we can do, whatever’s necessary to help them get back to work,” said Walker, director of the Division of Rehabilitation Services.

Eighty percent of the funding for VR’s services comes from the federal government. The remaining 20 percent is provided by the state’s Department of Education.

Employing individuals with a disability benefits both state and government.

In 2005, the University of Utah’s Center for Public Policy & Administration conducted an Economic Impact Study. The results showed that for every dollar the state contributes to the Vocational Rehabilitation program, $5.64 is returned. These returns are in terms of individuals paying taxes from employment and no longer needing government and state assistance.

Corby Campbell, 27, was born in Utah and lives in Orem. Nine years ago Campbell broke his neck in an accident and uses a motorized wheelchair.

“I can’t feel anything below my armpits or move anything below my armpits,” Campbell said.

He said someone told him about the Vocational Rehab program and that it might be able to help pay for college and other job-related necessities.

“And so, I went there,” Campbell said, “expecting to find help from them to get me through school.”

He talked with VR’s counselors and they helped him get started at Salt Lake Community College. Later, he transferred to Brigham Young University and graduated with a Bachelor of Computer Science degree. The Vocational Rehab program paid all his tuition costs.

“They’re wonderful,” Campbell said. “They’re super great people that are just all about trying to help you and figure out just where you want to go.”

In addition to helping with his schooling, VR got him in touch with the right people so he could buy a van.

He bought one with a ramp. VR paid for steering wheel modifications and other hand controls like special knobs to control the wipers, heating controls and other items.

“So that I could drive it independently, which was great,” Campbell said.

He felt his counselors liked working with him because he had direction and he was trying to obtain the goals they set with him.

Campbell finished school in December 2010 and started working full time as a software developer for Mobil Productivity Inc. in Orem the following February.

But his van broke down.

He bought a new one and paid for all of the modifications himself.

“I’m completely self-sustaining,” Campbell said. “That’s what a degree and a van did for me. That’s the point of VR.”

Another resource that helps people with disabilities find employment is TURN Community Services located at 423 W. 800 South in Salt Lake City.

Karen Wright directs two programs for TURN, vocational rehabilitation, and employment personal assistance service.

The latter assists clients who need help with daily living tasks so they can get ready for work. In addition, if the person needs help during work, a personal assistant will act as a liaison for the employer and TURN’s client. These services are provided free of charge.

Wright also works directly with USOR’s vocational rehab counselors once they have completed a client’s assessment and determined whether she or he can work.

“We start on thing like resume, job development, some life skills. Things like learning how to use a bus, learning how to use TRAX, learning how to advocate for themselves,” Wright said.

The list of companies that hire people with disabilities is long. Businesses include Home Depot, Kentucky Fired Chicken, Dan’s Market, WinCo Foods and Sutherlands.

Wright said people with disabilities are very dedicated. “They want to get up in the morning and get ready and they want to go to work. They really like working and they’re good hard workers.”

Being able to be in the workforce not only increases the income a person with a disability makes, but also betters their quality of life.

According to USOR, the following information demonstrates the individual and program success VR achieved during 2012:

  • 30,853 individuals were provided with VR services.
  • 3,427 individuals with disabilities were successfully employed.
  • $15,437,130 in estimated annual taxes were paid.
  • 146 public assistance recipients were successfully employed.
  • 671 Social Security Disability Insurance recipients were successfully employed.

In addition, clients found work in the following areas:

  • 1,032 industrial
  • 754 sales/clerical
  • 727 service occupations
  • 704 professional occupations
  • 98 homemaker/unpaid family worker
  • 74 farm/fishing/forestry
  • 37 self-employed

“This is how welfare programs should work,” Corby Campbell said. “This is what I see Vocational Rehab as: (it) is something to help people that fell down … get back in a way so they can be independent.”

Opportunities for actors who are disabled are scarce in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by MAKAYLA STOWELL

See photos of Sandbox Theatre’s production of “Curtains.”

The overture starts, the lights hit you, and you act your heart out. Actors across the country find this feeling to be one of the most exhilarating and exciting things in the world. Shouldn’t this feeling be equally available to everyone, regardless of disabilities?

However, that is not always the case in Hollywood. Actors with disabilities are finding it very hard to find work.

According to an article published by the Deseret News, actors without disabilities are being hired to portray characters with disabilities far more often for large-scale movies being produced in California.

This isn’t only happening on a national level, however. In a local perspective, there are very few actors with disabilities performing on Utah stages.

What few opportunities there are in Salt Lake are hard to find out about, and harder for actors with disabilities to actually audition for.

But it isn’t about the money. Some actors with disabilities say they just want the chance to perform and feel the exhilaration of performing in front of a live audience.

So how are disabled actors in Utah getting the opportunity to get up on stage and do what they love?

In November 2011, Jordan Valley School in Midvale, Utah, put on a production of “Beauty and the Beast.” The cast was made up entirely of students with disabilities.

According to the KSL news story, the show was a huge success and audiences loved it.

Jaycie Vorhees, music therapist for the school, said in the story, “A lot of them are smiling more than I’ve ever seen them smile before.”

This was one opportunity for actors in high school to perform, but what about those actors who are disabled who aren’t in school?

The Sandbox Theatre Company, located in Midvale, offers an opportunity for one blind actress to get on the stage.

Kira Larkin, who is now 36, has been blind since she was a child and loves to perform.

Bridgette Stowell, the producer for Sandbox Theatre Company, said Sandbox enjoys giving Larkin the opportunity to perform.

“It gives her something to do and she works really hard,” Stowell said.

Stowell recalled one time during a production of “Spamalot” that Larkin walked across the stage holding a sign that read, “Did you say Holy Braille?” instead of Holy Grail, which in a big joke within the show.

She said casting Larkin in the shows does present challenges. “She has to have someone guide her around stage and we have to come up with alternative choreography since she can’t do the major dance stuff.”

Stowell said she has received several comments from audience members who think it is really neat that Larkin can be involved with the shows.

Susan Noren, who came several times to see “Curtains,” the last musical produced by Sandbox, thought that Larkin did a great job.

“I wasn’t distracted by Larkin at all, however at one point I was not sure what she was doing in the background,” said Noren, who was aware of Larkin’s visual impairment before seeing the show.

The choreographers had placed Larkin in the background or off to the side of most numbers because she wasn’t able to do the more advanced choreography.

“I think it is really neat that they would make a part for her and that she can add enrichment to her life by being in the shows,” Noren said.

Noren regularly attends theater performances around the Salt Lake Valley and said she had never seen any other actors with disabilities in another show.

She did, however, say that in another Sandbox Theatre production, she had seen an actor without disabilities play the part of the wheelchair-bound President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Stowell said no actors with disabilities auditioned for the role and the actor who was cast worked hard to portray the disability to the best of his ability.

Larkin started performing when she was in the fourth grade. At her elementary  school, it was required that all students in the fourth and fifth grades audition for the school play.

She fell in love with performing and has been doing it ever since.

The first show she did with the Sandbox Theatre Company was “The Sound of Music” in 2008. She heard about it from a friend who encouraged her to audition. Figuring she had nothing to lose, Larkin went to auditions.

She was cast as a nun in the show. She enjoyed the performing and loved getting out and being involved.

Larkin has been in every performance the company has produced but one since then. These shows include “Beauty and the Beast,” “Annie,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,” “Spamalot” and “Curtains.”

The only show Larkin didn’t audition for was “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” The directors told her there was a lot of dancing in the show and some on-stage combat. It would probably be best if she sat that one out.

She missed performing but understood and came back to audition for the next one.

“The hardest part is sitting and waiting while everyone else learns the choreography,” Larkin said.

The choreographers have to be patient as does Larkin while they teach modified versions of the more difficult choreography to her.

Larkin is not aware of any other theater companies in Salt Lake that allow and even encourage actors who are disabled to audition for the shows.

She does have other friends who are disabled who do theater in the community. Her friend Kyle, who is also blind, has been in “Savior of the World” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center. Like many other talented artists, he also plays the piano despite not being able to see.

Resources for actors with disabilities are available, however. A company called Abilities United Productions allows actors who are disabled to post pictures, resumes and contact information on the company website for potential casting opportunities.

Abilities United works mostly with paraplegics but will represent any actor with any disability.

The company is based in Logan, Utah. Larry N. Sapp II created the company in 2005 after he nearly lost his life in an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He also designed the business model for the company.

Abilities United aims to create an accurate representation of people with disabilities in its independent films. It also hires crew members who are disabled.

The company has produced several feature and short films, all starring actors with disabilities. These films include “London Time” and “Forever Yours.” All titles can be found on its website.

Through companies like Sandbox and Abilities United, actors who are disabled are getting more opportunities to perform. As Larkin wrote in her biography for the play bill of “Curtains,” “(I) would like to thank (the production team of Sandbox) for making my life better by performing in these shows.”

The life and success of Kirsten Morrise

Story and slideshow by NATALIE CHRISTENSEN

Meet Kirsten Morrise, her friends and family through photos.
Pierre Robin Syndrome is not a very well-known condition that is found in between one in 8,000 to one in 30,000 children born.

Pierre Robin Syndrome is a condition that comes in three stages, namely a cleft pallet, micrognathia (meaning a smaller jaw) and glossoptosis, an obstruction by the tongue from breathing.

Kirsten Morrise, a resident of Salt Lake City in the Sugar House area, has been dealing with Pierre Robin syndrome from the day she was born.

With her cheery personality and positive attitude, you wouldn’t believe the struggles this 20-year-old has gone through. She has been in and out of hospitals her whole life and  has undergone 40 surgeries. She has struggled with depression, been bullied through school and has overcome some learning struggles.

At a very young age she had a tracheotomy placed on her throat. Not only was this a burden for young Kirsten, but also for her mother Lisa who was taking care of two other children with medical needs.

“Kirsten was very sick and we were basically running an ICU and Timothy (her brother) was bouncing off the walls, and Michael (her brother) needed breathing treatments,” her mother Lisa said. “She was in the hospital 16 times her first year.”

Lisa said it was by the grace of God that she made it through that first year. Even with her two older boys needing help, having a child with a tracheotomy meant she needed to be at Kirsten’s bedside at all times.

When Kirsten had her tracheotomy removed at the age of 1, Lisa was able to return to work while neighbors watched Kirsten. Soon after however, problems started rising again.

“There were days when she couldn’t walk,” Lisa said. “And it was very strange … and things got a lot worse.”

Because of the lack of oxygen to her brain, Kirsten was having seizures which were getting worse and worse. Even with treatment, her seizures weren’t getting any better.

“‘Kirsten is sick get over it,’ was basically the attitude of a lot of professionals had that I talked to,” Lisa said. “But she kept getting sicker and sicker, and it got to the point where she couldn’t sit down on a couch without falling off because she was so out of it.”

As many times as Lisa tried to take Kirsten back to the hospital, they weren’t getting any help.

“And it’s like you’re running into a brick wall,” Lisa said. “It’s the scariest thing in the world to have your child be sick and have people not pay attention to you.”

Finally Kirsten was able to get the treatment but needed more surgeries.

She missed a lot of school because of the surgeries, and her social life wasn’t going very well either. A lot of Kirsten’s friends didn’t know how to treat her because of her surgeries. They saw her as being delicate rather than a normal kid.

“A lot of people don’t know what to say to me, because I’ve been through so much,” Kirsten said. “But I say they’re human. Do I really want them to be fully aware of what I’m experiencing?”

When Kirsten turned 6, she started skiing in Park City with The National Ability Center, a program that helps young kids recognize their strengths and helps build their self-esteem. The National Ability Center allowed Kirsten to participate in downhill skiing, and she had her own instructors to help her.

“My mom got me into skiing to help my upper trunk strength,” Kirsten said. “But as I got older and got better at it, it became not a pursuit (of) something to prove — I’m not delicate — but another activity I could add to my collection of talents I had.”

Kirsten went on in 2009 to win the gold medal in downhill skiing in the Special Olympics in advanced skiing.

Kirsten enjoyed skiing much more than physical therapy, it was more enjoyable and fun, and she could be outdoors. A lot of children with disabilities prefer to have their physical therapy this way, and Kirsten always looks back on the skiing experience with a lot of pride.

In 2005 Kirsten had screws put in her jaw called jaw distractors. The screws were visible on the outside of Kirsten’s face. When the screws were turned it forced her jaw forward so the jaw bone behind it could grow.

When asked if it hurt, she explained, “Yeah, you try getting the bone in your face being gradually moved forward.”

But, she added, “knowing what the end result is supposed to be makes it easier to endure.”

When she was 12, she attended LDS Brighton Girls camp. She enjoyed that summer so much she went back a second time and then finally went back as a helper in the kitchen in 2009 and then worked as the Craft Shack in 2010.

Kirsten loved it so much because the people there didn’t treat her like she was a disabled person. “They treated me like I was a human being,” she said. “There I had a blank slate, no one knew about my past … they let me do everything that everybody else did.”

Even having to wear an oxygen tank on her back as she went hiking her first year, she had fun with the girls telling them she was a cyborg.

If you ask anyone who worked with Kirsten at Brighton Camp a huge grin will come across their face.

Michelle Theurer was one of Kirsten’s good friends who worked at Brighton Camp with her. “It was great she always has something to say,” Theurer said. “So there’s never a quiet moment with her and she’s a really hard worker. Even with her limitations she’ll do whatever she can do.”

Theurer said Kirsten was always positive and was involved. She made things so much more fun because she saw them in a completely different way. “We would have time where we’d just hang out and it would be so fun to tease because she just dishes it right back at you, and she’s really ticklish.”

When Kirsten entered high school at Highland High, she was bullied by students taking her scooter and teasing her, calling her retarded and stupid.

“I have cerebral palsy and I have mood disorders, and I have hypotonia which means low muscle tone,” Kirsten said. “Those things have kind of caused with the bullying because of my posture and people look at me funny and also not being very athletic influenced the bullying.”

While attending high school, Kirsten was also going to college because of how much her surgeries held her back.

Kirsten attended Utah State University, because neither Brigham Young University nor the University of Utah sounded appealing.

“I made a plan to get to college,” Kirsten said. “And even though I got to college late, I had a plan I would get all of my high school work done by a certain time, and I would be able to function well enough to go to college.”

She picked social work as a major because she wanted to help others. “I feel like I have a capacity of empathy and I feel like I can give so much,” Kristen said.

Theurer also attended Utah State with Kirsten.

“Even though she may have challenges,” Theurer said. “She is always quick to realize that others have challenges too. She doesn’t seek for pity, but she does seek to serve others.”

Kirsten is looking toward the surgery that will fix it all. The procedure is called an End to End Anastomosis. Doctors will take out the part of the trachea that is scarred and then sew the ends of her trachea together. She went in early 2013 to Cincinnati to have the surgery done, but her throat wasn’t ready for it. So, on Dec. 10, 2013, she had surgery to advance her upper and lower jaws and tongue.

“Even though I have all these issues, I have a plan for how I’m going to do things and make sure I can do them,” Kirsten said. “I can take care of myself, I can do school, I can go on hikes, just not on big ones, and I’m a gold medalist in downhill skiing. Anything I put my mind to most of the time, I can do.”

Para Quad: Wheeling in the mobility of choice

Story and slideshow by WENDY DANG

Take a tour of Para Quad Mobility and see some customized vans.

For 36 years, Para Quad Mobility has been one of the oldest businesses in the Salt Lake Valley to install vehicle modifications for people who use wheelchairs. Located at 2572 S. West Temple, Para Quad stands to offer their services to those who need it.

As specialists in selling and repairing wheelchair lifts, Para Quad also installs custom-made hand controls for those with limited mobility. Anyone who is in need of a van or is having problems with their wheelchair lift can find help in the able hands of the main technician.

Fuhriman is one such technician. With stacks of framed certifications verifying his expertise, he is well versed in all things related to Vantage Mobility, Inc.

“They’re the ones in Arizona and who I used to go do my certifications,” Fuhriman said in regards to VMI who specialize in modifying minivans like a Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna. They completely lower the floor in order to give enough headroom to those who use wheelchairs.

To accurately repair and maintain any work VMI has done on a van, technicians like Fuhriman must go through training and pass certifications in order to understand how each vehicle modification works.

The certification must be renewed every two years. Fuhriman used to go to Arizona to update his paperwork but he says “Now everything’s online,” jokingly lamenting a loss of vacation time.

Another name Fuhriman is more than familiar with is Ricon, a prominent brand of wheelchair lifts. These lifts are usually fitted in larger vans like a Mercedes or Freightliner Sprinter van that have raised roofs for passengers to have more head room.

When it comes to actually driving, Fuhriman does a lot of work with modified hand controls near the steering wheel.

If a customer cannot use their legs, Fuhriman can install a handle that modifies acceleration and braking with just a push of a lever.

Fuhriman says he prefers to work with the driving modifications because “the most rewarding are the ones that make the most difference.”

The cost of these modifications ranges depending on which vehicle assistance is needed.  If a family member who uses a wheelchair is looking for a vehicle to use daily, then a lowered floor minivan is recommended. If a hospital is looking to fit their van with a lift, then Para Quad would install an electric lift for them, Fuhriman says.

The Ricon lifts are about $6,000 plus another $500 or so for tie down security measures.

The adjustments for a lowered floor van start at $25,000 which is added to the cost of the standard van. That can bring the cost of a brand new minivan fitted with a lower floor to about $52,000-$72,000 total.

William Stoddard has owned Para Quad for the past six years.

Stoddard says a lot of customers cover the cost of these modifications out of pocket, but some have access to limited funds provided by the state. Stoddard said if an injury resulted on a work-related issue, then Workers Compensation Fund would help pay for the vans.

Besides retail customers that look for assistance for their daily needs, Para Quad has done a lot of work with Primary Children’s Hospital, Huntsman Cancer Institute as well as the George E. Wahlen Department of Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center.

Local businesses also like to work with Para Quad. Tuyet Nguyen has worked with South Salt Lake’s New Image Vans for more than 20 years and does a lot of interior work like upholstery and carpeting for the vans.

“They (are) great people to work with. Very honest and fun,” Nguyen said.

Along with his work at Para Quad, Stoddard has created a public education initiative called “Don’t Disable the Disabled.” This public service announcement emphasized the danger and frustration people who use wheelchairs feel when a designated handicapped parking spot is occupied by someone who is not impaired.

The Disabled Rights Action Committee is working to create awareness of the initiative. Stoddard’s efforts to support it have been highlighted by three TV news stories by KUTV Channel 2.

The experience gained through working with Para Quad has equipped Stoddard with the necessary awareness needed to cater to each customer’s individual needs. Knowing the general details on most diseases and circumstances that limit mobility such as multiple sclerosis, Stoddard can counsel customers on which options would be best for them.

When it’s thousands of dollars at stake, Stoddard says, “We try and help people the best we can.”

How accessible is Utah’s new Granger High School?

Story and photos by WENDY DANG

The new Granger High School in West Valley City opened its doors in Fall 2013. With a fresh start, Granger has made better accommodations for students with physical and learning disabilities.

Rebecca Beck, a resource teacher who taught in the old building, commented on the lack of accessibility her students who use wheelchairs faced in the old school.

Beck said in previous years, the school “tried lifts on staircases but (they) were too dangerous.”

The main entrance to Granger High School, which opened in Fall 2013.

The main entrance to Granger High School, which opened in Fall 2013.

Now with the $80 million building, Beck sees how much easier it is for her students to get around.

“(The) only access problems are crowds,” Beck said. Other than the hordes of students walking to class during pass time, the numerous elevators and wide hallways offer easier access for students who use wheelchairs.

Since 1958, Granite School District has kept the general floor plan of Granger relatively the same. Although the school tried its best to make the main building accessible by moving required classes to the main floor, students who used wheelchairs still couldn’t get to the upper level.

This new building has elevators scattered around the building, as well as accessible ramps that are noticeable improvements on the old school.

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A bathroom in the resource area offers easier access due to wider floor space.

The bathrooms, located around the resource student area on the first floor, have three wide stalls that are roomy and efficient enough for any student to use.

The building still has some planning issues to work out, however.

John Carlisle teaches photography, a humanities course and is also the yearbook and newspaper editor. Regarding the security of the new elevators, Carlisle said, “In the event of a legit fire alarm, we have to carry kids down. Safety first.”

If a fire alarm is set off, the elevators will shut down. The school authorities are still in the process of finding a procedure that might be safer for the students on upper floors.

The new building sits just south of the old one, where the parking lot and Granger Park used to be. Along with new facilities including multi-garage shops for automotive classes, an exclusive black-box theater for the drama students and an entire hallway for the sciences, Granger High School is offering more space for students to learn.

The school supplies each classroom with iPads for students to stay current with technology. Many teachers are using them to exercise alternative mediums of learning in order to reach students who have different learning and behavior disabilities.

Clete Johansson was an English teacher in the old math and English building. He was brought over to the new one to continue his classes.

“iPads probably allow me to do more (with students) if they can’t write” due to mobility issues, he said.

Brandon Moore, another resource teacher, implements aspects of technology into his classroom experience to accommodate the students’ different learning styles.

Widely known as the READ 180 program, the students in his class are rotated between 20 minutes on computers, 20 minutes in small groups and 20 minutes of individual reading.

This helps stir the usual pot of a traditional classroom. By replacing an 80-minute class lecture with interactive learning and engaging people skills, Moore can cater better to students who might have attention disorders and can’t focus for an entire class period.

Whether it be a physical or learning disability, Granger High School can now offer education to students when it couldn’t before.