Complaint to Michigan’s Client Assistance Program Regarding Disability Network West Michigan

The Muskegon Center for Independent Living (Disability Network West Michigan) is in violation of several federal laws, most notably the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which governs CILs. As a person with a disability who resides in Muskegon, my right to receive independent living services has been violated because the services provided are not consumer led, directed, or controlled. I strongly believe that Disability Network West Michigan does not meet the federal definition of a CIL.

I will attempt to summarize in this complaint a few of the most egregious violations as I see them. 

  • Disability Network West Michigan submits data on the number of staff in leadership positions who have significant disabilities as defined by the Rehabilitation Act. I believe that this data is being falsified in order to maintain funding. An onsite review by anyone with an understanding of Independent Living could confirm this. Our group requested documentation to support their claim of 88% Board members; 77% decision-making staff; and 80% other staff with significant disabilities and we were informed that no further documentation would be provided to us on any subject. I believe this to be a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as FOIA. In addition, their website was recently scrubbed of staff biographies, so identification with disability can no longer be traced by the public. Only three out of nine Board members have voluntarily self-identified as people with significant disabilities (33%) – a far cry from the numbers listed in their revised 704 Report.
  • Disability Network West Michigan does not employ an affirmative action plan to hire people with disabilities and has refused assistance from the disability community to develop and implement one. They claim to be a privately held non-profit with no obligation to provide information to the community.

“Please do not misunderstand my position in your quest for who knows what. No invitation for dialogue was extended beyond the allotted 5 minutes of public comment time at the start of our monthly board meetings.”  – John Wahlberg, Former Disability Network West Michigan Board President

  • Disability Network West Michigan systematically discriminates on the basis of disability in hiring practices. After employing an Executive Director for the past decade who has not experienced disability and who is visibly uncomfortable with disability rights advocacy, Disability Network West Michigan recently posted that job opening using a position description that makes no mention of personal experience with disability. Disability Network West Michigan had at least one qualified applicant with a disability with extensive experience with the Independent Living Program apply for the job, but hired a non-disabled person instead.
  • Members of the Disability Network West Michigan Board of Directors literally do not understand what a Center for Independent Living is and are uninterested in training on the topic. We have referred them to the IL-NET training and technical assistance program and to RSA’s Onsite Review Checklist, but they remain convinced that they work for a typical charity and have no more responsibility to the local disability community than to any other citizens who approach them.
  • Disability Network West Michigan lacks a functioning workplan developed with input from the local disability community, training on accessible materials and communications, an outreach plan, and a plan for staff and Board training. Our offers of assistance have been flatly refused.
  • All Disability Network West Michigan Board meetings have been closed to the public since self-advocates began attending meetings. Advocates were asked not to attend or to physically leave meetings in October 2014; November 2014; December 2014; January 2015; February 2015; and March 2015, despite the RSA’s Standards and Assurances (signed and submitted by Disability Network West Michigan) that guarantee that meetings are “generally open to the public”.
  • Disability Network West Michigan Board members reference two policies in their bylaws as a reason they cannot engage with the disability community: Board members are not allowed to speak with “the public” or staff & volunteers. This is patently ridiculous for a Center for Independent Living.

The Muskegon disability community cannot wait another decade for consumer control – the foundation of a CIL. Unfortunately, the staff and Board of Disability Network West Michigan are unwilling to take action.

Many people here with significant disabilities are scared to speak up in fear that the services they depend on from Disability Network West Michigan’s “partner agencies” will be taken away in retribution.

Centers for Independent Living are Congressionally-mandated organizations. CILs are required to be staffed and directed by a majority people with significant disabilities. Therefore, Disability Network West Michigan is appropriating federal funding illegally. CILs play a crucial role in our communities and the disability community in Muskegon is desperately in need of a fully functioning Center.

I respectfully request that this situation be investigated and that the CIL be urged to meet immediately with representatives of the disability community (of our choosing) in order to take meaningful and immediate steps to come into compliance with the law.

Eleanor Canter

Update: Michigan’s Client Assistance Program (CAP), which is housed at Michigan Protection & Advocacy (MPAS), has declined to assist us with our complaint, despite its mission to “help clients pursue concerns they have with programs funded under the Rehabilitation Act” on the basis that CAP has “no governing authority of the Administration or Boards of the CIL”.

See Also: Individuals with significant disabilities as defined in section 7 of the Rehabilitation Act and 34 CFR 364.4 of the IL program regulations – This refers to an individual with a severe physical, mental, cognitive or sensory impairment whose ability to function independently in the family or community or whose ability to obtain, maintain, or advance in employment is substantially limited and for whom the delivery of IL services will improve the ability to function, continue functioning, or move toward functioning independently in the family or community or to continue in employment.

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