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Central Florida Disability Advocates Navigate The Pandemic

Roderick Thomas (l) and Kyle Johnson at Lighthouse of Central Florida where a call center is assisting Floridians with unemployment claims. Image: screen grab via Zoom.
Roderick Thomas (l) and Kyle Johnson at Lighthouse of Central Florida where a call center is assisting Floridians with unemployment claims. Image: screen grab via Zoom.

Coping with the coronavirus pandemic, with home schooling, isolation and health concerns,  is stressful for the abled- but what kind of resources are out there for the disabled in this crisis?  

A group of Orlando area disability advocates join Intersection for a conversation about how the disabled are navigating the challenges of the pandemic.  

Kyle Johnson is the CEO of Lighthouse of Central Florida; Roderick Thomas is working at Lighthouse's call center; Cathy Matthews, who's son is visually impaired, is an advocate for transportation for the disabled; and Brittany Pilcher is the Development Director for the Center for Independent Living in Central Florida.

Lighthouse, a non profit which offers rehabilitation, training and employment for the visually impaired, had a contract with the Department of Economic Opportunity. Johnson says the call center was scaling back its work for the DEO because of budget cuts and the state's low unemployment numbers. Then the pandemic hit.

"We stopped that scale down immediately, and then we ramped up, we're in the midst of ramping up to 50 [Full Time Equivalent staff] from from 15. So that's roughly 65 people probably."

Johnson says Lighthouse also supplies combat medical kits to the US armed forces, "and so we have a lot of relationships in the manufacturing and distributing of medical items, so we were able to leverage those relationships to gain access to several PPE items that we immediately began selling to local hospitals into the state of Florida."

He says the non-profit's approach has been "two pronged", making sure it can weather the crisis financially and help meet a need for the unemployed and front line medical staff.

Roderick Thomas, who recently graduated from law school, says working in the call center has given him "a bigger heart to serve my community."

"So just being a listening ear to help those individuals in any shape, form or fashion, I'm more than willing," says Thomas.

He says frustrations are running high and the calls can be emotionally challenging.

"Listen, if they're upset now, you know, hopefully at the end of the call, they won't be crying or anything of that nature. Hopefully, I'll be able to help them out."

While regular service for Lynx and SunRail  resumed this week, Cathy Matthews says the pandemic has been challenging for those members of the disabled community who rely on public transportation.

"If the restaurant you go to eat every night for dinner is now closed because of Coronavirus, you have to figure out something else to do about meals. If you go to the grocery store and they happen to be out of all the things that you particularly need, then you don't really have the option of just getting in your car and driving around until you find what you need, or going to that places far away that might have that asset," says Matthews.

She says the pause in the County's plan to put a one cent tax for transportation on the ballot has also been a blow for advocates of mass transit and paratransit.

Brittany Pilcher says CIL has seen an uptick in demand for in-home safety modifications like ramps and rails, "because people are wanting to feel safe in their home and we want them to be safe in their home."

"We do not want them to have any type of fall: we want to prevent them from, you know, having to go to the hospital [and overloading] our hospital system...being in the line of potentially getting the virus."

Pilcher says the center has not been able to use its volunteers to check on clients during the pandemic.

"We're proactively calling our seniors and those individuals with disabilities that we serve and checking in on them: 'How are you doing? And is there anything that we can do right now in this moment that can make you feel safe make you feel less isolated and more independent?'"

Kyle Johnson says on the other side of the pandemic, Lighthouse and other non-profits that serve the disabled are expecting philanthropy to take a hit.

"We've seen a bit of this after 911. We've seen a bit of this through the the recession and '08 in the years around that. And so I think that it's going to take a lot of careful examination and monitoring."