Guest: Brad Williams
Topic: New York State Independent Living Council (NYSILC)
Published: June 6, 2021
Host: Welcome to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by the Western New York Independent Living (WNYIL) family of agencies, courtesy of the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service (NFRRS). Using this long format, we will be exploring the broader issues affecting the community of people with disabilities in discussions with knowledgeable individuals from a variety of organizations and backgrounds.
We are delighted to have as our guest for today Brad Williams, Executive Director of the New York State Independent Living Council or NYSILC. We are your hosts Jillian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell. Welcome to the program, Brad.
Guest: Thank you Jillian and Ernie.
Host: Unlike our agency's 30 some year old, five-minute public affairs show, in this program we have the luxury of time to get to know our guests. What are some of your prior positions that helped prepare you for this job in particular at independent living center?
Guest: Well, previously I was the Executive Director of the Glens Falls Independent Living Center for approximately 10 years through most of the 1990s. It is now known as SAIL, Southern Adirondack Independent Living, located in Queensbury, New York. We expanded to a Saratoga County federal satellite office, at the time what was envisioned as a multi-agency building, which they expanded services into because they obtained several contracts, along with a small, modest boundless playground, known as Freedom Park, which lasted like 20 years, and has since migrated and expanded a few miles away to Hubie Pond Park. Also remember, we created this center for adaptive computer technology, which we, at the time visited the Utica RCIL, which had a similar computer technology and were able to expand upon that, we worked with ACCES-VR to do fee for service at the time, but that's my best experience.
Host: And we understand that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 called for each state to have its own Statewide Independent Living Council or SILC. Is it technically a government organization and just what is the function of a SILC?
Guest: Well, the New York State Independent Living Council Inc. or NYSILC is a not for profit, non-governmental consumer-controlled organization comprised of 26 appointees, the majority of whom have disabilities. And they reflect various communities and diversities from across the state. So, the SILC is responsible for jointly developing and monitoring and evaluating the three-year Statewide Plan for Independent Living, or SPIL, along with the Federal Centers for Independent Living. They are known as CILs in the state. They are also considered the state plan partners, and the New York State Education Department, the Office of Adult Career and Continuing Education Services Vocational Rehabilitation. That's an awful lot to say. ACCES-VR, they serve now as the administrators of the federal state plan funds. So that's kind of like the official kind of response of what a SILC is or what NYSILC is. But another way is to kind of look at NYSILC, we conduct surveys, we develop reports, and we have an active committee structure that addresses issues impacting New Yorkers with disabilities.
Host: Looking more closely into the SILC, while some members of the council are employees of Independent Living Centers most are not. What are the backgrounds of some of the other members?
Guest: That's an interesting question, and I looked into this, and it does change over time because a council member can get appointed for three years, and then if still interested can serve another three years. So, at this time, we actually have three attorneys, actually three. There’re times when you might not even have one. Of those three attorneys one is working at a law firm, another works at a stakeholder group supportive of disability issues. And the third is retired from a career doing protection. And I found this interesting four have social work backgrounds, quite interesting, I mean, you might have one who might have a social work background, but that could be something that's just trending, where the social work field is just, you know, something that's emerging at this time, or has been in the past decade. We have two providing informational support related to healthcare, and I think we all know the importance of health care. So that is quite logical, two have public administration masters, two are connected to Consumer Direct Services, that's also very logical. One person has a background doing script writing. And that's also something you might find. It's just something personal and it's just as we're looking at other individuals, is likely to just come up. And another is a fund development professional, so that's what we have.
Host: Awesome. And these days, equity is a very current topic and we understand that NYSILC is involved in trainings and providing resources concerning equity inclusion and intersectionality. Please explain what these are and what your organization is doing to advance them.
Guest: NYSILC is currently engaged in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training, or it's also known as DEI. So far, we've learned a lot about ourselves and what we need to change related to the council, to be more inclusive. We have more training that will conclude in July, then we shift to planning sessions during August and September, that will lead to a plan and a DEI committee that will monitor and facilitate the change. Now the council was able to utilize $30,000 of its own budget. And I say that because, for those who can understand this, we were fully in to COVID last year. So, for those of us who have expenditure base budgets, you need to spend, right, in order to get the money. So like, if all of a sudden, we all found ourselves last year, and you couldn't do, you really couldn't do much traveling, and you didn't have face to face meetings, and I could go on and on in terms of line items. You then had decisions to make in terms of what you're going to do, especially in general operating with some of their money. So, we then came up and said, we should do something that could impact, especially like diversity, or something of that nature. So, we prioritize $30,000 in the general operating part of the budget for this kind of activity, of our own budget. So yes, it comes through the state plan, but it goes into NYSILC. And during that spend down, we at the end of last year, we targeted to the statewide systems advocacy network sites to provide them with $2,000 each, so they can identify ways to conduct outreach to what the federal government calls unserved, underserved communities. In reality, this meant that find ways to connect to Black Lives Matter groups, LGBTQ communities and immigrants with disabilities. A few of the SSA and sites reported back the following related to the use of these mini grants, I'm just going to describe a few of these. So, AIM collaborated with a local Black Lives Matter group in Corning, and Ray of Hope Church, and LGBTQ church in Elmira, on to our Get Out the Vote TV ad campaign aired on WENY, a local ABC and CBS affiliate. Life at RCIL based in Utica, created a video with a person of color and a person with a disability, talking about the intersectionality between race and disability. ILCHB based in Troy co-sponsored Experts of Our Own Lives, a public event on marginalized people leading movements for justice, because we all have a role in a stake in intersectional justice. And then two more. ATI of Cortland County staff participated in the county's Executive Order 203 Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. Stakeholders included leadership from Black Lives Matter Cortland, Cortland LGBTQ Center and ATI, along with local government officials and representatives from law enforcement. And then finally Arise worked jointly with groups connected with Black Lives Matter on the planning of the 2020 candidate forums on disability issues, representatives of both the National Action Network Syracuse chapter and the Syracuse Tenants Union were panelists, and asked questions during their three virtual forums.
Host: Boy, it looks like a lot of your member organizations have irons in the fire in the equity aspect, and we admire that greatly. Now, something you alluded to before, was the three-year Statewide Plan for Independent Living, or SPIL. One of the most important NYSILC roles is gathering the input of consumers with disabilities in developing this bill. Why is this so crucial?
Guest: Yes, it's crucial because it provides legitimacy for the process. And in fact, it's part of a federal process, you know, in this case we're talking about the particular group of people with disabilities, but it really applies to any other group, it could be for seniors. It could be for veterans, but for us it's people with disabilities, and it's then a matter of how you hold the different or provide the different methods for that feedback. Kind of a standard way is to have public hearings, certainly provide advance notice. And then you provide full accessibility for that process, but you really have to provide alternatives for that. And one method that we then kind of hooked on to was there are several conferences, where colleagues go to, and then you get like a breakout session, and then you kind of amplify that feedback. Well now we're in this virtual age. So, like there's virtual conferences, and let alone just the ability to have virtual meetings for the feedback. Certainly, is going to just allow for all this additional feedback on your state plan. We also increase the method, because in New York State we have 41 Independent Living Centers. So rather than having events where people come to you, an Independent Living Center can hold their local event and have like a forum, because you can devise what we call a facilitation outline basically for the state plan, you can set up the set of questions including at the end like an open feedback, and then get the same consistent input on the plan for all of these types of methods in order to get your feedback. It really is the best way to get that feedback and then there's also a cycle. In this case it's a three-year statewide plan feedback cycle. You know the first year, you work on consumer satisfaction survey. Second year statewide needs assessment, third year you get the feedback on the state plan. Before you know it, it's done and over with. And it's almost like a five-year plan would be more ideal. And then during each year you monitor the progress of the projects and plan. And then, after year end you evaluate it, but that's literally kind of like a quick overview of the three-year statewide plan, and its process.
Host: And so, as you mentioned earlier, NYSILC works closely with New York State's Adult Career and Continuing Education Services, Vocational Rehabilitation or ACCES-VR, as well as the Federal Administration for Community Living or ACL. What is its relationship to each?
Guest: I will back into that question because I'm going to start by saying for about a dozen years, I was a National Consultant for what's known as the SILC-NET, helping out other SILCs. Without a doubt, the top item that we assisted everyone with was relationships. Okay, in their state, chances are, if people are having a problem, it's because they had issues in their state with their relationships. The relationships between their SILC, their designated state entity, meaning the state. Often it was the vocational rehabilitation, potentially the state association that represented the centers and/or their centers and their centers could be state funded centers, and/or federal centers. So, there's a whole bunch of relationships there. Okay and in from a management, planning, management point of view, if you think of like the Peter Drucker Foundation and or however, whatever management philosophy you've come from, you do your mission, your vision, your goals, a SWOT analysis, but eventually define your environment, and who are within your environment and who were outside your environment. We're talking about your partnerships here and who is in your environment. If the people in those partnerships cannot get along, you have a problem. Okay. And so, this is something that needs to be worked on. You have to at least, it isn't that you're going to agree all the time, you're probably going to have issues where you need to work on things, you must reach consensus, and to be able to work through your issues. If not, you're going to have serious problems, and you're not going to be able to address the work that's before you. Now, that is just something that needs to be said. Then you get to the question that you just asked, between the federal government and the state government. So, in our case, it's Administration for Community Living, the federal government. In New York, it's ACCES-VR who I already explained their acronym. And now let's consider this, we were just in a pandemic, we’re just beginning to come out. Boy does that ever matter, your relationship, when all of a sudden you find yourself there because the SILC is kind of in the middle. I mean, we developed that state plan of the flow of the federal money for independent living that comes into the state. So, when this pandemic hit, we then had to help define how the CARES Act funding, working with the state plan partners, which would be the federal centers. Okay would come in as state. That would be great, except ACL at the time, you could not communicate to them. So how are you going to make this happen when you can’t communicate with ACL, they, if you send them an email, you wouldn't get a response, if you tried to call them, their voicemail boxes were full to capacity. I mean, what a very difficult time in terms of communication, when you could not communicate to the federal government. They were getting overwhelmed. To be fair to them. But when you need to get something done, and you couldn't get it done, that was hard. On the state level, and I don't know how many people were aware of this, all the way around, not to just pick on our partners, but people in state service who were anywhere between 20 to 30 years of state service, or in school systems, or in any other kinds of service systems were retiring in droves. I don't know if people were aware of this. People in state service were retiring, who were anywhere close to retiring. At the same time in state service, there was a hiring freeze, and I still think there is a hiring freeze. So, what ended up happening, like for instance, at ACCES-VR, they have what's known as the fast unit. They're the fiscal unit, they ended up having, and they still have just one person in the fast unit. So, if you need your money it’s not going to be coming fast, I don't mean to make fun of that but that's the truth. And all these folks are in very difficult, a very difficult situation. Because no matter where you are in State service it decimated the state, the state agencies, they're their units and, but they still have to do business. And so, people just have to understand this. So then, if your entities like the SILC, you're then in this liaison role, and you're trying to do work with them, and we have been working with ACCES-VR and we have actually been getting some work done. We've had lists of things we need to get done and we have been able to get things done probably based on the strength of our relationships. You have good working relationships; you can still probably get things done. But out of all of this process, people have been getting angry and upset and frustrated. And I just want to point this out in terms of what has happened.
Host: Alright Brad, you've said a lot of the things that have been accomplished as a result of the SILS. You just started a new cycle in February, is there anything that hasn't been covered?
Guest: Well, the only thing I want to note is, in terms of what's different with this state plan is that ACL created a new template and insisted that it be based on a logic model. Previously, they would suggest that you use a logic model, but you now must use a logic model. So, while the projects have the same support, they have a logic flow with measurable indicators. We worked with a monitoring and evaluation committee to create criteria, and we're in the process of finalizing the end of your surveys to help assess the process to create a sense of responsibility for the SILC and its partners.
Host: Brad, we should mention that for our listeners that they're listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth with Brad Williams, Executive Director of the NYSILC. Now you've been the director of NYSILC for over 20 years. In the last six minutes of the program, what are some of the major accomplishments that the council has achieved during that time?
Guest: I'd like to mention three major accomplishments that have occurred over the past two decades. First, we realized through discussions and public input that people with disabilities in New York needed a systems advocacy network. So NYSILC was at the inception of developing this model for what is known as the Statewide Systems Advocacy Network or the SSAN, or the SAN. And it ran as a volunteer network for two years from 1999 to 2001. We needed to be able to demonstrate that the model in concept worked, and it did. We achieved back to back $1 million dollar IL state appropriation increases and supported our peers at the National Council for Independent Living, NCIL, to get the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act signed into law. Among other things, this provided the enabling legislation for state Medicaid buying programs, and the SSAN appeared in the state plan for the first time in 2001. So, this is when things really begin to kind of move forward, we started to partner with other disability state stakeholder groups on mutual issues, eventually, you know, Medicaid buy in did happen in New York State and that was around 2003 and we started to have like disability caucuses, with stakeholder groups to discuss our mutual issues. But then, by 2005, SILCs were given an edict by Rehabilitation Services Administration, RSA, who was our federal agency to only perform their duties. So, the SSAN was put out for Request for Proposal, an RFP, and NYAIL, the state association took over its direction. And the network has been active and successful for over 20 years.
The second item NYSILC was at the forefront of the accessible voting battle in New York State, and it's supported by the SSAN. NYSILC’s voting access subcommittee did reports and tested equipment and the council even filed an article 78 action against the state board of elections, known as the BOE for representation on the Help America Vote Act, known as HAVA Taskforce, which we ended up getting, and served on twice. NYSILC ended up providing a significant amount of evidence to the US Department of Justice for what ended up being the first HAVA lawsuit in the country. I mean we even connected a few plaintiffs to DOJ for this lawsuit. We worked on a polling place access bill that became law. So, the bottom line, the battles we fought for essentially a decade from 1999 to about 2010 helped pave the way to more accessible elections in the state today.
Third and last NYSILC with the support of NYAIL and IL advocates helped to create employment first in New York State. There's a whole backstory of how this happened. The University Hospital based in Rochester, received one of our few federal grants nationwide, with the goal to create employment first in the state. As they pulled together their proposal, they needed to show collaboration with partners. I mean pretty much you have to do that with any grant especially federal grants, so they were like policy wonks, they could talk data, and how they wanted to build support for employment first New York State. But they, none of them were advocates. And so, they suggested NYSILC based on the success of the SSAN, made a lot of sense, but we were like, hey, we will do so in exchange for compensation, and I'm sad to say, it got narrowed down to a mere $10,000 a year, pretty cheap for expert systems advocacy. I can remember first couple of meetings, you know we're listening through the planning part. And they were very good at their data analysis and planning, but they had no idea of how to make employment first a reality in New York State. So as advocates, we kind of branched out on our own, and developed a plan of how to put pressure on the governor's office to get him to make employment first a priority in his upcoming state of the state address. We started with a change.org participant petition. And we got other stakeholders involved. And in the end, it didn't make it into the State of State, but a representative from the Governor's office reached out to us and agreed to having meetings with a small group of advocates to discuss the issue. And we had real productive meetings, and we came up with a plan. I mean this was over a series of, like, three, four months, and we knew that this was in coordination with there being a gubernatorial election. This was also part of the planning, and as we were talking about long term, we said something like, well October's Disability Employment Month. That may be that was kind of like what might happen. The Governor did not do as well as they had hoped in the primary. At that point, I think they felt they needed to make some things happen in the following week, they just came out, and announced the employment first executive order. So sometimes you know is all part of the general plan. And knowing like with a lot of politicians, it's all about their reelection, and it all worked. And in the year that followed everything else rolled out the public hearing process plan and feedback about the plan. Those are the things that I wanted to share.
Host: Brad we were hoping to talk to you about other things but we're totally out of time. We're sure some of our listeners will have questions, how can they reach you?
Guest: They can reach me at the NYSILC telephone number is 518-427-1060 but definitely the best way is through email at email@example.com
Host: Thanks so much for being with us today Brad. You've been listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, the program presented in the public interest by the WNYIL family of agencies, courtesy of the NFRRS. Our guest was Brad Williams, Executive Director of the NYSILC.
This program features the song A Little Ditty on the Dance Floor by Jay Lang available under a Creative Commons Attribution, noncommercial license.
We've been your hosts Jillian Moss Smith and Ernest Churchwell. If you wish to hear this program again a couple of days after the on-air broadcast, you can find a podcast on the NFRRS webpage nfradioreading.org on the Programming tab under Bonus Programs and also on wnyil.org under Public Relations/Podcasts. Have a good week and be safe.