We recently spoke to Luke Koppisch, the Deputy Director from the Alliance Center for Independence (ACI) of New Jersey, about his experiences networking with other Centers for Independent Living (CILs) through one of our programs – Healthy Community Living (HCL) – and transitioning workshops and other services online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workshop facilitators from selected CILs met weekly for several years discussing resources, ideas, and successes facilitating the HCL workshops – Community Living Skills and Living Well in the Community. Luke shared that these weekly meetings were a key part of his center running successful groups.
“A lot of people had good ideas on how to engage people, how to keep people coming to each session each week,” Koppisch said. “One particular center had a small group. They had one person that would show up who didn’t have internet or a cell phone. The facilitator would meet with this person one-on-one every day to help him learn the program and get the skills. The opportunity to work with people between the sessions – I thought that was effective.”
ACI also received a list of ice breaker questions from another CIL that they continue to use that help people learn to trust each, especially in their transition groups that might involve personal sharing and other information.
In addition to learning and sharing with other centers, Luke’s CIL also had to deal with moving services online because of the COVID pandemic, which especially endangered people (and staff) with disabilities.
ACI transitioned their programming, including HCL, social recreation, peer support, choir, and theatre groups online. They even created several new groups specifically around adapting to COVID-19.
“I think we’ve had more consistent attendance with people going to an online platform,” Koppisch said.
He shared that consumers are in roughly three groups of online adoption: those who have no issues or even prefer going online, people with technology access who need to learn skills and might struggle a bit, and people who lack access to technology or have an extreme learning disability that can’t participate remotely at all.
“There still is that digital divide,” said Koppisch. When current COVID safety issues die down, he says his center plans on hosting as many mixed-use workshops as possible where people who need in-person support can do that, while those who need or prefer to be online still have that option.
Forcing centers to move online has had other extraneous benefits, though.
“Some of our COVID support groups had people from out of state. Possibly Chicago? A few, not a ton,” Koppisch said. He shared that while some of his programs are unable to serve people outside certain geographical boundaries due to grant-rules and other restrictions, some of their social and other programming are not bound by those conditions. “Obviously, if we are live in the office they couldn’t participate.”
In addition to opening up service possibilities, he shared that shifting online has had other benefits. He said not dealing with traffic and commuting has made his work much more efficient, and having services available online has helped maintain a more consistent connection with consumers during weather events – like snowstorms – where before they would close their office and have to suspend services.
And, despite people with disabilities having to adapt to online workshops, the benefits of attending continue to accrue.
“One of our participants in our last session of Community Living Skills and Living Well in the Community… we had a job opening and she applied and got hired at our center. She’s been working with us since January,” Koppisch said. And while Luke couldn’t say that the groups explicitly say that his new co-worker got the confidence to apply because of the groups, participating in the workshops was likely a benefit. “She is working with individuals on work-readiness skills. That’s a success — someone who graduated from the program and is now working full-time with us.”