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Washtenaw United: Creating equity and access for the disabled community

Alex Gossage, executive director of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living
Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living
Alex Gossage, executive director of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Alex Gossage is executive director of the Ann Arbor, Livingston, and Monroe Centers for Independent Living. Since becoming interim executive director in 2017, Alex has led the launch of new services, including employment services, benefits counseling, and the EmpowerYou business incubator, growth of disability awareness programs for school age youth and transportation workers, the establishment of a wide range of social and recreation programs, and the expansion of both the Monroe and Livingston locations. It goes without saying that Alex is also a rock star at the exciting executive director duties of reporting, budgeting, and compliance monitoring for Federal, State, and community funders, and he has a love of burning midnight oil when funding proposals are due.

Alex is passionate about the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout our community, and within the organization, he prides himself on promoting a culture of collaboration and empowerment among staff to best meet the needs of our community.

Alex first joined the CIL in 2004 as a volunteer and then an AmeriCorps*VISTA, providing research for new grant programs. He became a full-time employee in 2006 and has since served progressively responsible roles. In August 2015 he became associate director for the CIL.

Alex earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in political science and history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has engaged in a variety of leadership and grant development trainings during his tenure at the CIL.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United, in which we explore issues of equity and opportunity. I'm David Fair, and it was a week ago today, Governor Whitmer signed two bills into law that will change the look of signs posted in public spaces to indicate accessibility for those with disabilities. It is a step in the ongoing efforts to be more inclusionary and to break down barriers that often inhibit the lives of those with a disability. Our guest today has made it a mission to tear down those walls. Alex Gossage is executive director of the Ann Arbor, Livingston, and Monroe Centers for Independent Living and serves as vice chair of Disability Network Michigan's board of directors. Thank you so much for the time today, Alex.

Alex Gossage: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: Here and there, I've already seen some of the changes in the logo--the disability logo. We all recognize that longtime logo of a stick figure in a seated position with a broken three-quarter circle representing a wheelchair. Can you describe the new version?

Alex Gossage: Sure. The new version, it would say, it looks a little more dynamic. There looks like there's some action, some movement there. It's not static anymore. And so, it is still, I think, looks similar to what we have all seen as the traditional symbol for many, many years. So, it's similar enough that it shouldn't cause confusion, but different enough that I think it starts to move us in a more positive direction.

David Fair: Make some room. We're coming through.

Alex Gossage: Exactly. And, you know, for myself personally, we're removing the word "handicapped" from the signs. And I think that is a big step in the right direction in terms of how we talk about disability, how we talk about folks with disabilities, as that is not a word that, at least I personally care to use.

David Fair: As you mentioned, "handicapped" is going to be removed. "Reserved" is going to be put in its place. And that's probably a language change long overdue. What do you hope comes of such language changes in the broader goal of creating accessibility and opportunity for the disabled community?

Alex Gossage: Well, I think it's part of all of the greater education, the greater awareness, the greater acceptance, and I think the greater equity that we are fighting for within the disability community. It helps to move us forward with looking at all of the different intersections of where disability connects to people in our communities. It's a step in the right direction of looking at us as a whole person and taking away that stigma. I think where we look at disability or some people look at disabilities as a negative thing, whereas I look at it simply as a part of who I am, and it's a part of who I am that is just as good as any other part.

David Fair: So, part of it is perception. Part is socialization. A lot of us were brought up with that kind of terminology and language. But characterize attitude. Is it one of the biggest barriers to equal access inequity?

Alex Gossage: I would agree with that. Yeah. I think when I look at our communities or my environment around me, I think I see it, as somebody with a disability myself, I see it as in a physical environment that wasn't built for me in and pick an attitudinal environment that wasn't built for me. I think there's a lot of reluctance oftentimes to employ people with disabilities. There's a lot of reluctance to see people with disabilities as able to contribute to any part of our community. And so, you know, I think any time that we can really put this conversation out in front of people, any time that we can have more discussion about people with disabilities as we are active in the communities around us, it's for the better.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United conversation with Alex Gossage continues. Alex is executive director of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. You've been with the Center since 2004, working your way up from volunteer to executive director. And you mentioned that you have a disability yourself. So, was it fair to say this is not only a professional journey, but a very personal one, too?

Alex Gossage: Oh, very much so. You know, when I left college, I knew I wanted to work in this arena. At the time, I didn't really know how. And I would say with a little bit of luck and coincidence, I kind of found out about Centers for Independent Living, and I realized I was able to not only find a place to work, but find community for myself, which was something I was lacking at that time.

David Fair: It was back in July of 1990--July 26, to be specific--that President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. There's no question there has been some progress since. And that was a landmark piece of legislation. Since you began in this field, where have we seen the greatest progress?

Alex Gossage: No. I think the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, does a good job at least in my mind, of setting a baseline. When we're looking at making things accessible, equitable, inclusive of anything that is in that law, I think should be viewed as the baseline. And we all need to be working to look at what's further along in that. What is a universal design for accessibility? I think there have been a lot of physical accessibility improvements in our communities over years and years and years. And, you know, it's hard to believe that, I would say, over 40 years ago, you might not have seen curb cuts where somebody in a wheelchair like myself would be able to go from one sidewalk to another. And now, we see those more often. So, I think that, you know, in the physical environment, we've seen a lot of changes. I think there are things in the ADA that are trying to help folks who are being discriminated against. I think there's a lot of room for improvement in that area especially, and that's what I hope we can all continue to move forward on and see progress in that area.

David Fair: Well, as you mentioned, that should probably be viewed as a minimum standard to be built upon--a foundation of sorts. So, is there any areas in which you expected progress to be further along than what it has achieved so far?

Alex Gossage: You know, that's hard to say, at least from my perspective. Maybe I'm being a little cynical. But I don't know that I was looking at one thing being better than another. I guess what I would like to have seen and would like to see is us building upon these things more actively. You know, this law is over 30 years old now, and we've not necessarily seen other opportunities where we're creating laws, where we're creating places for people with disabilities that is above and beyond that. We're still kind of hearkening back to this is the law, and this is the legal requirements. And we really need to be moving beyond what the legal requirements are.

David Fair: So, I do want to talk about the progress that labor force immediately and into the future. We're talking with Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living Executive Director Alex Gossage on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. You've led a number of new services and initiatives since becoming director in 2017: employment services, benefits services, awareness programs, and EmpowerYou Business Incubator. Is that accelerating the desired progress?

Alex Gossage: You know, I think programs are helpful, and I think creating these opportunities where we bring people with and without disabilities together to learn to meet their goals, I think that is is a part of the progress. That's a part of getting us in the right direction. But it is really more than having services. The piece about advocacy, about unity, building community, building awareness. Those are the other part that are just as if not more important. And so, we're, you know, right now, for example, the 21-day equity challenge will be coming up. The Disability Equity Challenge here in August. And we'ill be having some activities along with the United Way along with that. There's also going to be a disability pride celebration at Eastern Market in Detroit on August 23rd. And those are the kinds of things where we really need to be spending some more of our time. I know as we're getting into what is a new normal post the last couple of years here with COVID. We're having more opportunities to get back out in the community and connect with folks. And so, I think we're going to be able to be more active in those arenas going forward.

David Fair: So, I've detected a common thread in your answers, and that is that it takes a lot more of us and a lot more of us to be educated, aware, and committed. What comes next in trying to further develop the disability community and number of allies needed to take the next steps beyond just having events in the public?

Alex Gossage: Well, you said it. It's about building allies, and it's about building relationships and collaborating with organizations of individuals, bringing people together. And so, we've really tried to focus in on that in the last few years. I think awareness and education is a big part of that. So, folks can understand how they can be an ally to the disability community if they're not already part of it. I think, in the case of disability too, oftentimes, it's having an understanding of who is the disability community. We're a very broad and beautiful group of people and inclusive of a lot of different folks. And so, I think when we're all able to understand those things, when we're able to understand the sorts of things that maybe we come up as barriers against in our lives every day, but also the successes that we have, we can all come together and move forward as long as folks with disabilities are present and accounted for. In that, we're being intentionally included in a lot of these discussions and togetherness. And I'm glad.

David Fair: You mentioned The United Way's 21-day equity challenge for disability. With this equity challenge in mind, isn't that exactly what you've been talking about throughout our conversation about gaining true understanding and, through that, there will be compassion and activism?

Alex Gossage: It is. It's exactly it. Actually, our colleagues at another Center for Independent Living, located in Kalamazoo, Disability Network Southwest Michigan, had started this disability equity challenge in their local area, and, through some of their work, we have been able to bring this statewide. So, I'm really excited to see how this goes next month, and I'm really excited to be able to collaborate with our United Ways to move this forward. And we'll also be hosting two events during the equity challenge on August 15th. We'll be having a conversation about what is disability. And on August 22nd, we'll be having a conversation on job accommodations and disability disclosure. We see that that's an area where folks oftentimes have a lot of questions as they are trying to get into the world of work.

David Fair: Well, Alex, thank you so much for the conversation and the perspective. I appreciate it.

Alex Gossage: Yeah. Thank you.

David Fair: That is Alex Gossage. He is executive director of the Ann Arbor, Livingston, and Monroe Centers for Independent Living and vice chair of Disability Network Michigan's board of directors. He's been our guest on Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living


During the month of August, United Ways across the state of Michigan are partnering with local Centers for Independent Living to present the 21-Day Disability Equity Challenge.

Participants will receive one email each weekday beginning Aug. 1 to explore disability from a position of equity and pride is designed to raise awareness, increase understanding, and shift perspectives about disability in our culture.

Sign up here: https://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/eventReg?oeidk=a07ej8fup2kd06d0e59&oseq=&c=&ch

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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