Peter O’Connell is the Executive Director for The Center for Independent Living of South Florida, located in downtown Miami. Peter and his staff serve a diverse population, staying true to the independent living (IL) philosophy, and therefore, all of our services are person-centered. The consumer, along with their family and/or support system, identify the services needed, and together with CIL staff, map out a plan that guides every consumer in achieving their independent living goals.
For more information about The Center for Independent Living of South Florida visit https://www.cilsf.org/
SPEAKERS: Peter O’Connell, Tony Delisle
Tony Delisle 00:00
So in today’s episode, we are going to keep in the spirit of trying to interview as many Center for Independent Living executive directors as we can. In our episodes, they bring in very unique insights into the needs of their community that they’re serving throughout the state. And it gives us insights into the needs of communities that are outside our own. And so today we are going to be bringing you Peter O’Connell, he is the executive director for the Center for Independent Living of South Florida, which is in downtown Miami. So he serves a very diverse population and has an incredible staff, I got a chance to meet them at the 2019 National Council on Independent Living or otherwise known as NCIL conference. And it’s held in Washington to see was over time that the ADA anniversary is celebrated at the end of July 26. And so we got together and one of the days is traditionally done and do a marched down to the Capitol. And once we get to the Capitol, we break up and we’ll meet representatives and senators and talk to them about some of the and educate them about dentistry, independent living, and I gotta say South Florida was one of the most vocal well represented, enthusiastic, inspiring, melodic on beat, rhythm voices in the whole crowd. And so it was really great to be energized by their inspiration for really trumpeting the importance of the independent living movement. So Peter has a great history and background and how he got captivated into the independent living movement. So I think with all that, together with his background in it, with the center that he serves there in Miami, and the diversity that’s in it, the great staff that delivers some really incredible services and programs for that community. And some of the thoughts that Peter has to share with us about you know, what, what is the independent living movement? You know, what is his philosophies, the culture, and ultimately the services? And what does he see as a vision for the future, and the independent living movement and where we’re working towards so Peter O’Connell, Executive Director, Center for Independent Living of South Florida. All right, so let’s just jump right into this. Peter O’Connell, Executive Director for the Center for Independent Living of South Florida. Husband, father, big time in the ladder, definitely, most impressive, and I know perhaps even more meaningful, but nonetheless, we’re here to talk about Centers for Independent Living. And really want to dive into what your Center for Independent Living of South Florida, Miami, is all about, and what you’re up to, and all the good things that you’re doing.
Peter O’Connell 02:47
You know, Center for Independent Living in Miami is the second-best center after yours, Tony, in the state. I think the only thing we got to beat on certainly is the quality of our location.
Tony Delisle 03:02
That’s still debatable. This isn’t fake news, either, right?
Peter O’Connell 03:05
Oh, yeah. You know, I came from the Bay Area, where a warm summer day was literally 72 degrees. Today in sunny Miami, we’re an agency located right above downtown Miami. We are easily accessible by public transportation, but boss or you can easily find us. We serve the five core services. And this is where my team, if they’re going to listen with me are going to crucify me. Our five core services, our systems change and advocacy. They are independent living skills training, we do transitions, both in youth and seniors, looking to refer anybody looking to return from an institutional life setting. We do peer mentoring, peer mentoring skills. So one of the firm beliefs in our agency just like yours, is that you know, the people who most effectively connect with the issue that you’re having, or somebody who’s already had that issue.
Tony Delisle 04:08
Right? Yeah, I&R information and referral.
Peter O’Connell 04:11
I have an awesome, awesome team that when you call him or when you email, Facebook Messenger us, send us a DM on Instagram or even do an old old fashioned telephone call. We’ve got a wealth of resources to do. Utimately, we’re just we’re just an organization that seeks to build community within the disability community to help solve the issues of being disabled while living in Miami Dade.
Tony Delisle 04:37
Anything, any programs or any situations or circumstances or success stories or even challenges that you had along the way that come to mind right now that you’d like to share?
Peter O’Connell 04:47
You know, I think two programs that are particularly appealing for the public, and ones that I’m really proud of are one we have a partnership with our adult education program, and individuals who have decided that they want to go and get their high school degree equivalency, whether they want to go get a vocational certification, or even a vocational goal. And they’ve discovered that they’ve had a learning disability, we have a tutoring program where we match them with students to help them tutor. And the part that always impresses the heck out of me is that if you get into our program, and we match you with a tutor, we have a 95% success rate and achieving whatever their goal is. The other part that I’m incredibly proud about is our youth services, our youth services coordinator is is a hidden gem within our agency, she works on so many different activities, especially in this pandemic environment as we switch to a digital world of just planning events that both mesh fun activities where they’re going places and doing things and at the same time learning independent living skills that are going through and and and I am amazed at her ability to keep that group engaged and out and coming up with new and fun ideas all the time.
Tony Delisle 06:07
Well, you know, congratulations on your adult ed program being a 95%. It kind of goes back to what you’re saying earlier about when you’re matched up with people who have either been there done that and can really connect with it just shows the power of that kind of connection, that can happen and the magic that can happen with it. And then to tie that into what you’re saying with youth transitions and all the creative things that are being done there. Because imagine those years of high school young adult and not having the social, you know, being locked down and barred from a lot of that social interaction, it’s got to be pretty excruciating. And it’s not easy to engage people in these kind of, you know, zoom in, zoom out, you know, kind of meetings and those kinds of things, which It’s fantastic to have this tech, for sure. But man, you got to be creative. So kudos, doing that to engage people. That’s a next level kind of the advanced class on how to do it in terms of IL services.
Peter O’Connell 06:58
Right, and I can, I can also tell you the scary way of how I how I got them to do it, which is basically I said we were going to do it. And they said we don’t know how to do it. And I said, well, it’ll be very embarrassing for us when when the events happen. We don’t have anything ready to do it. Yeah, we should start learning very quickly.
Tony Delisle 07:15
And speaking of your staff, you know, so I was at the NICL conference, obviously not this past summer. So it was the summer before would that be 2019? I guess. You know, I gotta say that your crew that you brought there was amazing. They were some of the most energetic, vocal, serious and fun at the same time group that was out there. There was a lot of interesting things happened in that conference. But I, I did notice that the Miami CIL representation at that conference really helped to boost the energy of so shout out to your staff.
Peter O’Connell 07:46
Thank you. You know, we make that a particularly important trip. And we work on trying to save a fair bit of money. And part of that is their natural energy. But part of it is is that is such an awesome crowd. We want our team to meet with as many different folks and build as many different relationships as we can while we’re there. One of the tricks that we do while we’re there is we actually create a bounty system. So we have a group chat on for our for our team. And there was a list of individuals that go for and if you go and get your picture taken with that individual and you send it to the group chat you get you get paid a bounty on it so they have for nothing else and it helps super is supersize their motivation to go out and meet everybody they possibly can, but as an incentive to be the most social and out and out there for CIL.
Tony Delisle 08:42
It’s so phenomenal. So for those of you that don’t know, we’re talking about the national conference is held annually to celebrate the 80 mark in the ADA, but also it’s at a National Council for independent living. And so it’s like center directors and others in the independent living movement, and so many other disability advocates and everybody just coming together for a week long workshops, presentations, legislative efforts, and marched down to the Capitol and all these wonderful things. And that I think is so awesome that you offer your staff the opportunity to go A, but B, then really encourage that collaboration. So you spent some time in San Francisco, so we recognize Berkeley, its historical ties to the foundation of the independent living movement. Do you have any connections with that or you’re experiencing growing up being in a place that you know it’s kind of really known as the birthplace for it at all that that impacted you and perhaps is tied to what your what you do today?
Peter O’Connell 09:58
Yeah. I had a different life before I went to college. I have been very fortunate, I’ve had some great friends. So I’ve had, you know, my best man in my wedding was my high school friend of mine, I was his best man. You know, we lived a very good life and a nice suburb of LA, but had a lot of depression, and was incredibly frustrated. And that frustration stemmed from feeling very alone, I had people who were disabled of my life, but who weren’t not being actively engaged in the day to day, social life. And then I had able bodied folks in my life or non-disabled folks who, you know, didn’t know just the the anxieties, the fears, or the problems, like, you know, the standard example that I like to ask is, is, you know, if I asked a girl out, and she said, No, what percentage of it was because I was in a wheelchair, and what percentage of it was because I’m simply a jerk, and she didn’t want to date jerks. And I couldn’t figure out a mechanism to do a post date ask survey says, ma’am, can you would you be willing to speak about the quality of your date on a scale of one to five, one being the best five being the worst, listing reasons, you know, so I felt very alone. And, and I did pretty good in school though, despite being a pretty, I’d probably describe myself as disinterested student and being able to end up in Berkeley and, and, and it was a different world, because there was just disabled people everywhere. And I remember being in the disabled students program at UC Berkeley, and seeing a memorial to a man by the name of Ed Roberts. And there was condolences from presidents, Senators, governors, foreign heads of state. And, and, you know, I’m 17 I think I know everything in the entire world. And I have no idea who this person is that that whose passing was seemed to be a big deal. And so I go back to my dorm, I do some googling and I find out that there was the he was the first significantly disabled student to attend the University. And I find out that not only was I not alone, but there was an entire civil rights movement that had been and was being fought on my behalf without me even knowing about it, that the very curb cuts that I had used to get from my dorm room to the class in my class and back were a result of his and many others action to do it. And and as I fell in to a community of people like me for the first time in my life, experiencing the same problems and solutions that that, that I went from being a guy who had no idea how to deal with asking a gal out to meeting guys who had really attractive girlfriends, and being as disabled or more disabled than I was. And being I you know, I literally remember being at a party, and befriending a guy and his girlfriend went to go get them, get them a drink and ask him how that happened. How did you two get together? How did this… what was the mechanics of this? Teach me please? I need to know. And being in a world where the special thing about our agencies and then more importantly, the movement that we’re in, is that my agency doesn’t care what your challenge is. It doesn’t care whether if it’s figuring out how to ask somebody out how to apply for Social Security, how to deal with your landlord or how to travel across town, get a job, or just how to be able to send somebody a Valentine. If it’s important to you, then it’s important to us Because we know that nobody understands the challenges and the what makes it important, then a peer and and for the first time in my life, I got to be fully immersed in a community of peers. And it was the most liberating feeling I’d ever had in my entire life. And I was in I was at that point that I realized that I, there was multiple generations of people whom I owed a debt of gratitude for. And the only way that I could think about beginning to repay that debt of gratitude would be to advance the cause that they had pushed forward, and hopefully allowing even more people like myself, to not have to know about us and so that because they, we had done such a good job of integrating them into society as a whole.
Tony Delisle 15:58
That’s powerful Peter, like to be able to say, like, to connect to the past, and the good deeds that those that did in the past, which can now benefit us today. And to have that connection, cut through you like that, and to awaken you know, what’s inside you to then, you know, carry on the mantle is huge. So, what is it about, you know, the Independent Living philosophy and movement, you would want other people to know about it, because not a lot of people may know about, you know, what exactly it is. So, you talked about, you know, where it started, Berkeley, you know, Ed Roberts, you know, largely known as the founder of the independent living movement, but even you know, to those that might be inside it or outside it, you know, how would you explain what Independent Living philosophy is, and the movement that has become and is becoming?
Peter O’Connell 16:47
So I’m gonna give a plug to the resource that I always think of as the the secret Holy Bible of the independent living movement that nobody ever reads. But it’s, it’s literally the thing that I that has endeared me and taught me more about the motives of our founders than any other there is. In the Bancroft library online, there’s an oral history, where they have both recorded and have transcripts of interviews from all of the founders of the disability rights movement. And in it, one of them, Ed Roberts is interviewed. And he was talking about his rehabilitation process post-polio. And and he had, he was stricken.. succum to… contracted polio-contracted polio in his high school… during his high school years. And he was rehabbing it. And one of the things he figured out that he could do was how to brush his teeth. And he came to realize that to brush his teeth would require him about 45 minutes, and he’d be utterly exhausted afterwards. And that, that the important part wasn’t for him to be independent, it wasn’t important that he was actually the one holding the toothbrush, that that there is no freedom associated with physically moving a toothbrush across his teeth. Where the freedom and the independence came from, was being deciding when he was going to have his teeth brushed, and how he wanted his teeth brushed, and that he was the one free to make the decisions in his life. And that, that he was able to, to be afforded the opportunity to make his own decisions and not have them forced upon him by other people in most cases, who felt as though they were trying to do the best they could for him. And in the second case, it’s a matter of ensuring that our movement is integrated with the rest of society. It’s not simply acceptable that the I be able to see a movie that that has been shown, it’s important that I be able to see a movie with everybody else. And, and and that, that, you know, my, the recognition by society that I have equal value to everyone else, both in me being able to view myself as a valuable person, but also to be able to get that recognition back from society as well.
Tony Delisle 20:00
And so how would you explain like what the culture then of independent living is about so we got like, you know, the philosophy we got, you know, the movement itself here, but like the the culture, the mindset, you know, how would you explain that?
Peter O’Connell 20:13
Yeah, so I would say the culture is, is the acceptance and the embracing of failure, you know, paternalism doesn’t allow you to fail. The fear of paternalism prevents people from doing what they think is the wrong thing. But in everybody’s lives, it’s when we do the wrong thing that we learn some of our most important and valuable lessons. And then the second thing is embrace and embracing of exploration. Society tells us what our limitations are all the time they think they have a very fine and understanding but each of us with our own disability you know, I have a brittle bone disability, somebody with my same disability can do some things better than I can and can do some things less than I can. And if both of us need to discover those things on our own so that we can be able to map out the fullest extent of our independence. So it’s again it’s it’s an embracing and tolerance of failure and a desire to constantly explore.
Tony Delisle 21:17
Well connecting the failure to your first answer about the philosophy of independent living being choice like you’re saying, like choice right you know, so we got to make choices and even if they’re not the right choices, which could lead to that failure like you’re saying, you know, which is kind of the culture of like a you know, but you still learn from it and sometimes learn more from it. Don’t you have something that you tell your staff related to failure?
Peter O’Connell 21:39
Yeah and and and that is if we can identify failures then we’re not trying hard enough. We’re not we’re not experimenting enough we’re not trying to figure out new ways of trying to do stuff and and you know, it really is true, I you know, I think in this pandemic environment, the you know, we talked about you know, learning to be able to maximize zoom and one of the things like I kept telling our folks is, if you attempt to recreate our services that we were doing in person, we will have failed we need to figure out how to maximize what big digital provides us and we need to figure out you know, where we need to compensate for what being digital works for and you know, we are constantly coming up with with things that don’t work out but things that are coming out outstanding and, uh, one of the things that that we love is we’ve got an event called share our stories, SOS and it is, I gotta say, it blows me away with an event because you know, in so many of these zoom events, somebody has a shared screen, they speak on the PowerPoint presentation and they give a very informative… and everybody’s answering emails on they’re picking up a call while it’s going on and you know, there’s there’s no interaction to be able to do it. And it’s the reason why, you know, I don’t despite having a lot of our team participate in the NICL conference this year, it was nowhere near as fulfilling of an event as it had been in the past. But in our SOS events, what we do is we take the scale of the internet and we partner folks who are from different communities with folks from the disability community and we send them to individual breakout rooms and then they have private conversations, one on one conversations about really really tough subjects. And the last one I participated in on it was myself and and the head of a large nonprofit and I was a discussion of how do we keep ableism out of our organizations, and and and and you know, but the nice part was is that it it’s an event that we hosted with several hundred people but we were able to facilitate one on one intimate conversations where that head of that nonprofit could sit and ask me questions that they would never have been comfortable asking in a public setting less they’ve come across being afraid that they were breaking the law or they were less than interested in being 1,000% dedicated to the disability community and we were able to have a real conversation. And again that’s only possible because we just said we need you know, we’re gonna burn…burn the boats figure it out we need to… uh huh exactly, exactly. And we got lots and lots of you know, we had attempted game shows and all sorts of stuff that just fell flat on its face in terms of…
Tony Delisle 24:44
Well I would like to also provide context for that SOS you know, in the show notes as well. I’m assuming they still could probably you know, find that through your website and social media but I think we’ve got another one coming up here that one out. Yeah, if there’s flyers or anything else that we can share for that. You’re doing some phenomenal things there there Peter you know we talked about the philosophy the the movement the culture in services you know the services that you do Peter you tell me Peter then you got to you got so much to talk about here many episodes to go over with you about you know Independent Living you know what it means and all those different areas. But you know, if you had to, you know, explain to somebody what does it mean to live independently like what is the independent life to you Peter, what does it mean?
Peter O’Connell 25:43
And that’s a question that I grapple with a lot. I mean I’ve had the pleasure of living in some places with some really different cultures and some real different ideas about how families should be structured and and how lives should be structured and and it is always for me, independence means the… I am free to make my own experiments and my own mistakes, that I have the honor and the pleasure of being financially independent that I have figured out a way to translate some of my skills and talents into something that others find valuable and they are willing to trade and and it means you know, one of the things I always say anytime we give somebody a raise or hire somebody is they tell me thank you and I said no don’t don’t don’t ever thank me for this. You work and you earn your salary and and I don’t do that for them I do it for me because it’s a point of pride in being able to say that you brought value to this and it was a fair trade to do it, you know, having the ability to decide where I’m gonna live, who I’m gonna be with, where we’re gonna go is all about you know… I’m a guy who constantly falls down rabbit holes and there’s nothing that makes me happier than knowing that I have the ability to go down a rabbit hole and explore it because because I’ve been given the choice and the option to based on it and you know, that the, the places I’ve been able to go and explore I you know, my, my now wife and I traveled to Beijing without knowing any Mandarin between us and to give the level of preparation that we had didn’t even know exactly how we weren’t going to get from the airport to our hotel era. It’s a hilarious story but being in this movement gives me the confidence to say it may not be pretty but we’re gonna get it done. Because the solution was is we found you know, there is no such thing really as successful cabs in Beijing and I was traveling in my power wheelchair and what I did is we found one of the van taxis and without any Mandarin proceeded to motion about six cab drivers waiting around to lift my wheelchair into the van and then proceeded to then give directions through my iPhone to the cab driver to get there to do it and then proceed to reverse the process with the bellhops at the hotel that that we’re getting to and and and and again there’s no rules that you said that’s how you’re supposed to do it. You’re not supposed to do it like that. You’re supposed to you know have already pre booked something weeks before you even get on the plane for many folks. I’m sure it’s embarrassing as all heck because you know, we made a huge scene because nobody’d seen people lifting power wheelchairs into the middle of a van and there was quite an audience gathered around.
Tony Delisle 29:37
That’s pretty sketchy. Yeah. But but you have the choice. You have the choice to make all those decisions that put you that spot…
Peter O’Connell 29:43
And if they drop that chair, you know, what am I gonna do with that, but you know, frankly, we’re on an adventure, let’s roll, that ability to embrace that choice and that willingness that that is the essence of being in this movement. One of the things I love to tell people is I’ve screwed up almost every which way possible in the course of my life before I found what seemed to be the decision that worked for me. I’m one of those people who needs to hit every wrong answer frequently before I’m able to come across the one that seems to work pretty well for me and you know, frankly, this is a great movement that that says that’s okay.
Tony Delisle 30:29
That’s how we learn you know it isn’t failure if you really are learning is it just an outcome with the lesson and no need to say good or bad it’s just you know, another result and you often learn the most from it.
Peter O’Connell 30:38
And for me it’s it’s unfortunately, how the memory stays in my head better than almost anything is our Peter don’t touch the outlet. You remember what happened last time we did that? Yes, yes, I do remember the shock, we’re not going we’re not going to touch the outside anymore.
Tony Delisle 30:57
And then no one tells me what to do. So I’m gonna go touch the outlet.
Peter O’Connell 31:01
After about the third talk, well the best instance of this as I remember being 10 years old, and so I have metal rods and all of my limbs and they help make sure that when I have a fracture, it’s not as horrible as it could be. It limits what it can be and so they were 10 years old, and they replaced the rod and they give me very clear instructions and they say, Peter, you’ve got a hole in the end of your theme that at the top your thigh and if you move around a lot, that rod is going to come right out back the hole and we’re gonna have to do this again. And so it’s eight weeks of being in a body cast, where they have to tell this 10 year old “Don’t move.” Now unfortunately I’m a 10 year old boy and my listening skills and my also sitting still skills aren’t not wildly outstanding and after eight weeks they go and they take an X ray again and lo and behold, this rod has come back out again to do and we need to up this process all over again. We repeated this process three times before it finally got through sufficient heavy as big you know what, this time I think I’m not gonna sit still while this bad boy recovers because I don’t want to do this anymore.
Tony Delisle 32:33
Do you think that that experiencer gave you some characteristics and attributes that serve you well nowadays as a Director for CIL or as an advocate for people with disabilities?
Peter O’Connell 32:44
You know, it gives me a lot of empathy for people who are embarrassed. You know, there are a lot of people who come through our doors who are very sensitive about it, they feel. One of the things that I’m I’m there are two things that will never happen in the agency that I run is first of all, we’ll never wear uniforms. And part of the reason is, is because I want I want the people who are working to look slightly better dressed than the people that they’re working with. And the second thing is we don’t have any locked doors between our reception area and the rest of our agency and that’s a big believer and because because I don’t I don’t want anybody to think we’re afraid of anyone. There’s no reason why we’re afraid or uncomfortable by anybody simply because they have a disability. To me that’s what having a giant lock door between the public and the rest of our agency feels like.. yeah that we need to keep you controlled.
Tony Delisle 33:46
That does harken back to authoriatrianism.
Peter O’Connell 33:49
I’d rather deal with the occasional person who has impulse controls who starts walking down up and down our halls and say nah sorry sorry you got it you got to go sit, you got to go sit down and the front desk, then have treat every consumer that comes through our doors as though they were somebody that that you know, we wouldn’t want to deal with and interact with on a very limited controlled basis.
Tony Delisle 34:14
Well keeping a safe space you know, like you said, you know, people would come in and be themselves let their guard down that stigma I think you’re saying alluding to or even shame having a disability and there has been moments in my life where I felt that myself so I can empathize and would want to create a safe space you know, for that as well and our center and you know, I’d imagine there you know, in South Florida, that you also have a component in there that you know is definitely influenced by many different cultures as well. And so not all cultures view perhaps disability in the same way. So can you explain some of the differences you may see being you know, a senator in South Florida versus one that we’re up here in North Central Florida, may see in terms of, you know, a lot of those variations that might be out there that then could impact stigma related to disabilities, you know how different cultures view disability, now integrated into this culture. Man, there’s a lot there to unpack, you know, so…
Peter O’Connell 35:09
I’ll start off with that it’s an issue very core to my heart, because I’m married to the daughter of Mexican immigrants, or family came over and started a life here. And she spent the first few years of her life living in a garage, in her grandmother’s garage, in Southern California. And you know, the fascinating thing that I always think about is as we met at college, but we grew up less than 20 miles apart from each other. But if we hadn’t met at school, we would have never have interacted, at any point and to do it. And one of the things that was always fascinating to me was, when I dated Anglo women, there was inevitably a process where mom or dad, or both, when the daughter was out of the room would have a, okay, let’s have a real talk here a conversation, where they’d want to ask all of what they felt were embarrassing or invasive questions. If this gets serious, are you planning on getting a job? Are you able to have babies is your disability…And again, we are you going to be able to take care of our daughter, are you expecting our daughter to care for you, for the entirety of your life, and that would inevitably happen.
Tony Delisle 36:43
Just like I just want to kiss a girl.
Peter O’Connell 36:44
And so you know, I’m making this wonderful, wonderful woman in college. And her parents only pretty much her mother speaks English fairly well, but, but her father almost only speaks Spanish. They are very traditional folks. And I made a point of when I bought her engagement ring, traveling to Southern California, and visiting their home and saying, Okay, so, you know, I waited to ask your daughter until I had a steady, good job. This conversation, I’d like your blessing, I was actually very careful not to ask for their permission, because I was gonna marry their daughter anyway. And I didn’t want to have to go against their permission. I figured it’d be easier if I don’t have your blessing, but at least I’m not doing something you’re forbidden. And I said, and here’s what I want to do, because we’ve never really had an opportunity. This is a conversation that’s going to be between you and I, the three of us and I will never speak of it to your daughter ever. And I want you to be free to ask any questions that you might have. So that you feel confident that your daughter is going into the right place. And I don’t want there to be any doubt in your mind. So nothing you’ve said is going to anger me or upset me or you should be embarrassed by and…nothing I got there were no questions to be had an ad not an ad and what I had failed to. For a while there I thought it was they were just so couldn’t accept me or, um, what I fail to realize is is just it was a failure to understand culture. Most people in our community assume that the path to independence in the idealized perfect world is I graduate high school, I go to college, I occasionally come back home, when I’ve got breaks, if I’m not doing other stuff. I graduate college, I get a job, I move out someplace. I meet somebody, I marry them, I start my own family, and that trajectory, and that’s just not the trajectory that that my in laws have and coming to realize that in the Bay Area within the Asian American communities, and in Miami, particularly amongst the Latino communities, and the Haitian American communities. The understanding of what that arc looks like is completely different. And how that communication happens between those families is completely different. We have to work very, very hard. When I was in San Francisco, we would get Anglo folks coming in by themselves much more frequently. In South Florida, people with the same type of disabilities, we get the family coming in with them all together. And and they seem confused when we kick everybody out to do it and, and, you know, things that we have to dance around is things like, you know, hey, we can teach you to live on your own if you want. And, and the family can oftentimes get very upset if we don’t do that, well. Because what do you mean, you want him to leave us and leave our family, because even if the kid didn’t have a disability, they wouldn’t be leaving the family, you know, that, that, you know, you might get married and still live in that same home as part of the expectation and that that’s not the expectation of what it is. And so, you know, it’s why it’s so important that our team is so very Miami, because they have to not only match the disability experience, they have to match the cultural experience as well, of saying, you know, we don’t need you to, to go live on an apartment by yourself, we just want you to be able to have the same skills that everybody does, and be able to have that choice if you should so want to decide. Yeah, and so and so that is being able to understand how to navigate and communicate that. So you know, another example is, again, some more to my own was, is within the Haitian American community. You know, it is not an easy subject to talk about within any community. But it is particularly incredibly hard to talk about HIV and AIDS status in the Haitian American community, and the lengths that people will go to keep that a secret and keep that hidden. Because it is shameful. And, and, and shame will bring shame for both the person and the person’s family. And community means that we have to be cognizant of how we communicate about it. Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly is it’s, it’s important to recognize that, that our movement has a lot of fundamental ideas of sort of the nuclear family, you know, going off and being in this sort of levet town, suburbia, ideal picture and trying to recreate it as much as possible, when in reality, what we’re just trying to do is recreate the ideal of whatever’s in that person’s head. And, and so we need to throw out our preconceived notions, and always focus on what’s important for the people coming through our door. Because again, that’s what’s important, what they think is important is important, and nothing else matters.
Tony Delisle 43:25
I like how you really throw out there something that kind of challenges the maybe nostalgic, idealized way of promoting independent living and what is supposed to be, you know, cookie cutter look like and you know, how it really does depend on you know, the individual and what their is important to them and what they find meaning in, as most social movements go, the independent living movement does evolve and morph over time, and, you know, isn’t always beholden to its orthodox, you know, kind of way of doing things and evolved over time. And certainly, you know, how the independent living movement is seen or absorbed into different cultures that aren’t White is a huge part of it. So what do you see then the future of the independent living movement being what are some of the different either challenges or opportunities that you see us either going through now or tomorrow?
Peter O’Connell 44:12
Yeah, I, you know, I think there are two, two critical things that I look to see us build and that’s first, a recognition of ourselves as a voting coalition. That that, you know, political action is most effectively done when you’re able to demonstrate your ability to affect political change.
Tony Delisle 44:37
So you may be seeing almost like voting blocks being you know, older Americans, you know, they’re a voting bloc that you want to get young voters or women exactly, or like all of a sudden, like it’s voters that are people with disabilities.
Peter O’Connell 44:49
Within political party. Biden is currently president because African American women supported him, disproportionately as a bloc solidly and throughout that through the primaries and through the enthusiasm in general elections is probably his core group to do so. And, and as a result, we have seen an incredibly diverse platform policy and a set of appointments that have come along to match it. And it’s that ability to affect political change, that is the ability to then and be able to demonstrate that power. That that is that is a key to be to be able to do that. And and, and so, you know, being able to go to our elected officials and say, we have 5000 registered voters, in your district, in your region in your area, what would you like to say to them about these issues? What would your positions on on them be? And say, you know, we work very hard to cultivate a very active voter… voter group, we have numbers were the largest minority, right.
Tony Delisle 46:12
So one in four adults, yeah, have a disability. So that’s a huge voting bloc, you know?
Peter O’Connell 46:17
And yet, none of us are recognized, you know, I would look at it this way, I don’t prescribe some at all. But senior citizens are in this state approved, lumped in to the very, very first group of people who have received the vaccine, because they’re such an effective voting bloc, you know, that there are people who are first responders, who still haven’t received their vaccine in this state. Because because of the fact that seniors are such an effective voter bloc, and I don’t begrudge them for it. That that’s that that’s good for them good for them for being able to demonstrate themselves as an effective political force. To do so I would just hope that we would be able to see the same.
Tony Delisle 47:03
There’s overlap there, too. I think like half of all people over 65 have instability versus like one in four, just general adults seems like there’s already some of the building blocks that could be there to be a condensed voting coalition that can throw its weight behind certain things and get things done.
Peter O’Connell 47:18
And the second thing that I would like to see as I think we need to do is we need to what I view as recognize, again, the need to have a broader perspective of if some of us are not equal, none of us are not equal. You know, I, you and I are in our group on on how do we make sure to improve the integration and the Equal Access within our industry in our field. And, and I know one of the things that that I shared was, you know, in one of the most famous protests in our, in our movement, the the occupation of the San Francisco federal building, the longest, sit in on record, by the disability community. One of the details that is often forgotten is the Black Panthers supported it, they brought meals they brought supplies, to support the protesters inside the building, because they viewed it as an affront to the equality and they recognize that that it was they couldn’t argue for the quality of the members of their group, if they were not in support of others. And the realization that, again, different groups who struggle with equal access, we share a ton of commonality, just as you talked about with seniors, but mentioning, you know, the three things that I talked about in terms of the biggest meta issues in this state, are affordable housing, transportation, and access to jobs, that those are the three three biggest statewide issues. Those are pretty big pillars. Oh yeah. We are, by far, almost every community that’s disenfranchised. Those would be the three pillars of what their own their main issues are, that the African American, the Latino, the, the, you know, every possible community in this state that is struggling, I guarantee you, those are their, their top three issues as well. And the recognition of building effective and successful alliances across the board to recognize that you know, we have done an excellent job of saying that, you know, Tony, you have you have a vision…visual impairment, I have a mobility impairment, you know, but but our problems have more in common than they do separate from each other, that we are better off, coming together and just saying people with disabilities would like would like to have equal access. And we need to extend that view further out and saying that there are other people for other reasons, who have not been granted integration or access to the system as well. And we would like to become part of that better partners in that coalition.
Tony Delisle 50:40
Everything you’re saying and fully resonates with me, there Peter. And I really like how you really tie it all together with other groups and we have more of a shared, you know, struggle. And I know that’s been part of the Independent Living philosophy is that we do come from a shared struggle and that understanding and connection that you know, could be your really had between groups that have been marginalized, and really know what that is like, and, and to then come together in Union to, you know, again, you know, probably the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Through union, make the differences that are needed for all groups, to have that equal access to those kinds of things that are needed out there to make the choices that we want to have to make and, you know, the opportunities to learn from our successes and failures and all those wonderful things, you know, to have an integrated independent life.
Peter O’Connell 51:30
I look at it this way, in Miami Dade, there’s 2.8 million people. And in the census, they list that as big and roughly 2 million of them are of a Latino background, they list another 200,000 of them are African American, 250. 250,000, excuse me, are African American. And then they listed another quarter million as being people with disabilities. If you took those three groups alone, and added them all together, you have a supermajority of the people to do and so that means that all it’s really necessary is then putting them together as an effective group together, voicing their needs. All together.
Tony Delisle 52:15
I definitely think disability has a good place to come together and talk about that since regardless of whatever culture you come from a human experience, we’re all going to go through it, we might end up going What a great opportunity then to talk about how we all see it and can learn from one another and, and just be better people for it. You know, if we can be better people, then we can be better communities and do better. So well. Peter, I want to you know, you continue this conversation for sure. And I would love to get your staff in on. Sounds like they’re up to some wonderful things, and maybe even some people that you’re serving as well, you know, to talk about some of the great things that are going down there in South Florida. Yeah, I want to acknowledge you you know, for all the great work you’re doing there for our Florida Association for Centers for Independent Living, FACIL, the president of that crew, members and directors and to be at the helm and the steering wheel. You’re a brave man. Thank you for your time and efforts over steering that ship as well. And I look forward to learning more about your insights into Independent Living philosophy, culture, services and vision for the future. Thank you so much, Peter, I look forward to it.
Peter O’Connell 53:17
Thank you for having me. It was honor being here.
Tony Delisle 53:20
And next time, onward and upward, y’all Take care.
Amy Feutz 53:27
Thanks for listening to the independent life podcast brought to you by the Center for Independent Living of North Central Florida. If you like what you hear, please rate review and subscribe. And if you know anyone who might benefit from listening, share this podcast and invite them to subscribe to for questions, suggestions, or if you have a story you’d like to share, please email us firstname.lastname@example.org for call us at 352-378-7474. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, support, advocate and empower each other to live the independent life.