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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

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Photo of Michai Freeman

Participants: Tamar Michai Freeman

Program: San Francisco LISC AmeriCorps
Service: The Local Initiatives Support Corporation is a national non-profit organization that provides funding and technical guidance to local Community Development Corporations (CDC's) which are rebuilding neighborhoods across the nation. Members engage in community revitalization activities including housing outreach and education, job training, youth education programs, neighborhood planning, and human services planning.

Interview with Michai Freeman, March, 2001



1. INTRODUCTION:              real audio clip icon

MICHAI FREEMAN: My full name is Tamar Michai Freeman. I’m participating in the LISC AmeriCorps program. My CDC is Resources for Community Development. They are a non-profit affordable housing development corporation that helps put up housing for people, that is homeless, people with special needs, people with disabilities, very low income families.

2. INCLUSION:              real audio clip icon

EMILY MILLER: As someone who is currently serving in a program, someone with a disability, and someone who is working with people with disabilities, providing services, do you have any suggestions for the Corporation for National Service (CNS), both in terms of increasing the numbers and making it work?

MICHAI FREEMAN: So I think getting diverse people who are hearing impaired, who are visually impaired, who are developmentally disabled, who are physically disabled. And understanding, it’s a big group, it’s a diverse group and there is no model disability that could speak for everybody. But, being that as it may, there are certain common themes and you have to know within that certain community what those issues are, what the needs are. And you can’t expect them to come to you. You have to actually, actively keep at it.

3. ATTITUDINAL BARRIERS:              real audio clip icon

MICHAI FREEMAN: A lot of people may have difficulties getting people or having trouble reaching out to people with disabilities because there is a lot of different underlying attitudinal barriers. I say this too people on both sides. Because you have disabled people who want to work who are deathly afraid of working because of the awesome concerns and stress: “How will I inform my colleagues? Will they accept me? How will I do reasonable accommodations? What’s the law around this?” So its on both sides, and I think just understanding that its uncomfortable when you haven’t been around someone who is disabled. There’s a lot of things we’ve learned about disability growing up: negative assumptions, issues that maybe it’s too difficult. How do you incorporate someone who can’t hear into an environment where everyone is talking? So just having [program coordinators] understand that this process, yeah, it is difficult. It’s difficult because we haven’t really embraced it . There’s still a lot of reservations and fears and a lot of attitudinal barriers that’s in our culture that are unspoken. We really need to go beyond. And understanding that their programs are really not –to some extent I think—not valid unless they reach for [people with] disabilities, bringing programs to everyone in the community. There’s disability everywhere: people who are visibly disabled and people who have hidden disabilities; people who self-identify, people who won’t because of all the negative assumptions, attitudinal barriers and misunderstanding. Just because, fundamentally, it’s hard to change. We are humans. So really educating themselves and taking that time to learn about disability.

EMILY MILLER: It sounds like you are saying that it is important to address and take seriously the fears that people have and not pretend they are not there…

MICHAI FREEMAN: Yeah, and understand that these fears, a lot of people have them. In the interview process I always know that people wonder what disability I have and what I can actually physically do. And I have those questions too: how will I work day-to-day? And even I don’t have all the answers. But I want to have the opportunity to have the job and see what I can do according to my expertise or my abilities. I have a resume, and I want to be able to compete with everyone.

4. ADVICE TO PROGRAMS 1:              real audio clip icon

MICHAI FREEMAN: So I would say talk to the social security administrators in your areas. The reason why I say this is that you may have someone at the interview or the recruits go out and try to solicit more participation and they need to know when they talk to that contact person oh well have you heard of this work incentive program?

And you can work x and your money that you get over above your benefits will go into this account and for 6 or 8 months while you are getting your paycheck…if it doesn’t work out it won't compromise your benefits and your medical benefits if your insurance doesn’t cover you. It’s a crucial piece. And a lot of interviewees may not say, “what about my benefits?” They’ll say, “I don’t think I can do the job.” But somewhere in the back of their head, what they are really saying is, “ I don’t want to get off my benefits. What am I gonna do if I can’t pay the rent?”

EMILY MILLER: So what you’re saying is that its not just about being prepared to answer the questions but the interviewer /recruiter should let people know.

MICHAI FREEMAN: Look, we have 37 million people out here, who want to work, the vast majority want to work, who are not working. And we’ve got to do something cause as you can see, the cost of living is getting higher, people are getting educated and wanting to use their skills, find gainful employment. And people are living now under SSI benefits and you just can’t fully actualize as a human being.

5. REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION 1:              real audio clip icon

EMILY MILLER: Early on when you, when you decided that you wanted to apply for AmeriCorps, did you have concerns about accessibility?

MICHAI FREEMAN: I was concerned about the accessibility… I think what really drives me at first is more so if I’m interested in it, and then the concerns about accessibility and what kind of accommodations. I take more the, the very much the attitude that we can work it out…..When I came to interview .., for the position, the site, the CDC was in an inaccessible building. but there was someone who was renting office space who was in a wheelchair who had a ramp going up , covering two steps into the building, so I was able to get into the building for my interview. And the organization later brought a ramp and that’s how I get into the office. Also there’s an inaccessible bathroom. But my organization allows me to work at home a lot of times and thankfully I live just four blocks away. If that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t be working there. But, you know, they have been very good at working with me. And I definitely think, due to their new developments working with people with disabilities, I am definitely an asset and I bring a certain understanding. So I’ll be able to understand, and be able to articulate, and help them to understand what some of the issues are among the tenants.

6. REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION 2:              real audio clip icon

MICHAI FREEMAN: After I became employed, it became difficult trying to work in the office, 9-5. I had problems with my wheelchair and attendants who were accompanying me and those problems made it very difficult for me to get into work. And that’s why I say “be flexible.” Because if my supervisor had said, “well this is not going to work; we have accommodation and you are unable to fulfill those responsibilities. We are gonna have to let you go,” that just would have happened. But because I have a lot of resources of my own , understanding that I am able to contribute a lot, and also my supervisor really understands how difficult it can be to be living independently… the challenges for someone who has mobility issues and is physically dependent it is not just about them getting to work at 9. It’s about well, who gets you up in the morning? If their attendant didn’t show up that means they can’t be on time. And paratransit doesn’t show up, or it leaves them or their chair breaks down. All these things. Its really [about] being flexible

EMILY MILLER: List the assistive technology you use for your service and explain how you use it.

MICHAI FREEMAN: I use a mouth stick that is a wand which helps me type and turn pages. I use it in my mouth. It’s like a chicken pecking, that’s what I’m doing with my mouth stick. And that’s really helpful for people who don’t have mobility with their hands, or fatigue easily with their hands. Also there’s this thing that holds down on the phone, you know you put the receiver down and it sort of hangs it up? It’s like a little tongue-thing button. It holds down the button so I don’t need to keep the phone on the hook and I can use the phone. And I have a headset that has a microphone. It helps me talk on the phone and the job bought that for me.

7. DISABILITY AWARENESS:              

MICHAI FREEMAN: People get satisfaction by being productive and you have a community that has historically been denied access from living and being visible in society. For people to become employable it affords them the opportunity to live a life that is so much different than historically people with disabilities have lived. And to be contributing and the empowering nature that brings to an individual. And I cannot emphasize that what they are trying to do in the community is not, I don’t feel, complete or whole unless you get the active input of people with disabilities. I don’t see disability as something that happens to just disabled people. I see it as something that can happen in life. I became disabled at 8. A lot of people become disabled through traumatic injury diseases and diseases that manifest later in life. Its an equal opportunity event. And to the degree that we can understand that unless life gets better for people with disabilities, that would mean that people who are able-bodied right now, if this happens to you, that you would want to be productive and contribute in life as much as possible. Helping [to make] life better for this large sector of the population helps able-bodied people as well. Its like an insurance policy. That’s how I feel.

8. ADVICE TO PROGRAMS 2:              real audio clip icon

EMILY MILLER: Any thing else about you?

MICHAI FREEMAN: I would like to be contacted if they want to know more I would like them to reach out and ask questions. And also if they want to know more, provide access for people to come and speak but they should also be compensated. I think we have to understand that people give their experiences and share but also that they should be respected …give compensation for what they share. I think its kind of a little exploitative for people who speak about their experience and people who talk about it and then “ok thank you.” But for a lot of people with disabilities that would be go a long way be so much appreciated if they could really be seen as consultants and treated as such.

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.