How a local organization advocates, seeks to create change and more inclusive spaces

Founded in 1981, Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC) seeks to “work alongside persons with disabilities as they seek to lead self-directed lives.” Their service offerings include assisting individuals transitioning from nursing facilities, youths working to gain independence as they enter adulthood, and organizations interested in assessing the accessibility of their environment. Structured with 75% of its board and 56% of its staff members personally living with disabilities, they are able to bring a unique perspective and passion to their work.

Bringing a background in community organizing and law to his role, Executive Director Dave Bulkowski joined DAKC in 1995. “I am passionate about our mission to help people with disabilities set and achieve their own goals and to work on public policy change,” he says. For him, all the organization’s services “boil down to helping someone set their goals, develop a plan, divide the work and then achieve the goals.”
These goals can include pursuing or retaining a job, transitioning from a nursing home to community-based living, and improving the accessibility and safety of one’s residence, says Bulkowski.

“We also provide navigation supports, also called information and referral [services], [in] which we help people find the community resources they need, either here or elsewhere. And [we] help them find their way through those other systems if need be,” Bulkowski says.

To divide the work requires collaboration between the individual and the DAKC staff. Unfortunately, this has looked different due to COVID-19. “So much of what we do is based [on] one-on-one and small group interaction,” Bulkowski says. Despite this, DAKC has been able to adapt and continue responding to the needs of its clients.

“COVID has required us to become proficient in Zoom and to be creative in our community organizing efforts,” Bulkowski says. Their team was also able to obtain PPE and begin conducting their home visits again in May 2020. “While this has had a negative impact on our camaraderie as a team, people still know that we are all working each day with many individuals with disabilities and striving for systems change.” Though their team has successfully modified its operations, DAKC has also needed to respond to the changes presented for the individuals they serve.

“Unfortunately, for many, the pandemic has increased social isolation as folks could not risk going out into the community as catching COVID could be very serious as most disabilities, not all, bring along a set of underlying health conditions,” he says. With a focus on safety and accessibility, DAKC has been able to continue engaging with community partners on behalf of its clients.

“We have been doing extensive outreach to make sure people are getting what they need to remain safe and independent in the community. We have been advocating with many local partners and our state association first, to make sure there was no rationing of health care when the pandemic began; meaning, would people with disabilities receive less care or no care at all due to a perceived lessened quality of life,” Bulkowski says.

As the pandemic progresses, DAKC staff has continued to advocate. “Most recently, since Jan. [2021], we have been advocating for persons with disabilities of all ages to become eligible for the COVID vaccine. Our work has been successful though much of this may have to do with the increased supply of vaccine,” he says. 

Though many may only be concerned with receiving their vaccination, individuals with a disability may require additional assistance. “We are now working with the health department and others to make sure the transportation supports that are needed for a person to get to a vaccine clinic and home are available,” says Bulkowski.

Looking back, Bulkowski can still see the positive impact his team has had throughout the community.

“We have remained impactful throughout the last year in all our areas of support including completing 270 home assessments. A standard year would be around 300 but this number was down as we had to stop home visits in March and April last year,” he says.

Bulkowski can also identify some positive outcomes from the past year on a larger scale. “At one level, COVID provided additional supports for persons with disabilities.  Things like expanded work from home opportunities and the home delivery of goods and food have been very helpful,” he says. Looking ahead, he is optimistic that some of these changes are here to stay.

“We hope that some of the lessons of COVID remain — why can’t work from home options remain available? And home delivery and curbside delivery of meals and takeout,” he says. All in all, accommodations are all being flexible. COVID has taught us that we weren’t flexible enough and has stretched [us] in ways that could be positive in the long run.”

If organizations are looking to create more welcoming, accessible and inclusive spaces, Bulkowski encourages them to think about disabilities within their plans as well. “As folks look to make their spaces and places more inviting and welcoming for various groups that have been excluded through the years, [for example] people of color, women and the LGBTQ community, please include disability in these conversations as disability cuts through all of these groups,” he says.

“As we like to say, every one of us will likely join the disability community by acquiring a disability before we die, so let’s get the conversation about barriers for persons with disabilities going as we discuss the other barriers related to race and gender and more.”

Anyone interested in learning more about creating inclusive spaces can register for DAKC’s online Annual Absolutely Accessible Kent Technical Workshop April 20. Details can be found here. For individuals in need of assistance, they can reach out to DAKC’s information and referral team at (616) 949-1100. “We may not know the answer, though we hope we know who does,” Bulkowski says.

Photos by Thompson of Thompson Photography and Bird + Bird Studio

Voices for Transit is a nine-part series highlighting public transportation in Greater Grand Rapids by exploring the issues that diverse communities face, lifting up the voices of residents, employers, and stakeholders.

This series is underwritten by The Rapid and is editorially independent in our exploration of these themes.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 15 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]