The problems faced by young people with disabilities are daunting – not enough affordable housing, high poverty and unemployment, social isolation – but the Center for Independent Futures is there to help, one individual at a time.

It began 13 years ago when two mothers, sitting around a kitchen table, wondered what they could do to help their disabled young adults become fully a part of the bustling world. The result was a nonprofit organization designed to give participants the opportunity to realize independent lives according to their hopes and dreams just like everyone else.

“We really want to develop a personalized plan for every participant because every participant needs different things,” CIF Director Ann Sickon said. “Everyone is unique.” The center at 1015 Davis St. has focused on assisting people from eighth grade to age 22 adapt to school and obtain life skills, independent housing and work. It seeks to avert the kinds of separation the disabled have traditionally faced.

Each participant is assessed with a skills inventory and an analysis of his or her particular needs and interests, anything from learning or physical barriers to hobbies to personal support. Then a customized plan is implemented.

An example of past programs that have worked well is the Transition House at Evanston Township High School. This facility enables students with a range of disabilities to learn how to do the things necessary for independent living: cooking, laundry, housecleaning, using public transportation and use of interpersonal skills.      

In an age when there is tremendous competition for jobs, assisting participants to find satisfying work can be one of the biggest challenges. This is the case even though the disabled community has some impressive statistics on its side. Eighty-seven percent of customers say they would prefer to patronize businesses that hire employees with disabilities. Dependability among the disabled workers is very high. Their employee turnover rate is 8% compared to 45% in typical adults. Employers see a $28.69 average return for every dollar invested in accessible or other accommodations. There are also some great tax advantages for hiring people with disabilities.

CIF never asks businesses to take on a disabled employee as an act of charity. “We’re always looking for ways to improve the bottom line,” Ms. Sickon said. One example of a successful job placement involved a young man who was detail-oriented, enjoyed interacting with people and loved classical music. A position at the Lyric Opera opened up, and both the participant and employer have been delighted with the outcome.  

Two promising new initiatives are examples of ways that the Center serves to combat the kinds of isolation many in the disabled community suffer. The Community Connectors Bridge Building Project matches volunteers with CIF participants to introduce them to new interests, hobbies and social settings.    

Research shows that forging a personal network can be tremendously important. It has shown that a disabled person with four or more solid relationships outside family or paid staff can be happier and live longer than one who is solitary. As with anyone else, such contacts can also lead to reduced stress, more meaningful activity and more job opportunities.

The idea simply involves introducing individuals into an already existing social group, be it a bowling league or book club, trivia night or gardening class. For volunteers, it does not involve a commitment outside the bounds of that common activity, and once the participant has become comfortable in a given group, the expectation is that the volunteer will recede.

“Aid and fade” is the phrase Ms. Sickon used. The sponsor’s presence would not be necessary once everyone got to know each other a little and the participant became one of the regulars. “When one really gets to know people with disabilities,” Ms. Sickon said, “their dissimilarities begin to disappear.” The program has already received an overwhelming response in Evanston.

The second initiative is the CIF Café, set to open in January on the 900 block of Chicago Avenue. It is designed to provide another setting for the disabled and to offer help with computer and internet skills.  

With Illinois being one of the worst states in the country for funding services for the disabled, CIF performs a vital function in trying to fill that gap. Of course,
the benefits of such projects do not go just one way – greater integration of the disabled leads to a richer, more diverse and inclusive community. Just ask the Lyric Opera.