Holiday: Porter decorates his tree for his first Christmas in his new apartment.

For 25 years, the Progress Center for Independent Living of Forest Park has been helping disabled adults live more empowered lives in Oak Park, Forest Park and River Forest, as well as all over Cook County.

“We work with all kinds of people with disabilities, providing them tools to be more independent,” said Executive Director Horacio Esparza, who has first-hand experience. He has worked at the center for 13 years, five as its director. He is completely blind and marvels at how things have changed for people with disabilities since the center began.

“Assistive technology has improved tremendously,” he said.

Esparza uses JAWS screen-reading software to use his computer; he has a braille printer computer reader. “My iPhone is amazing,” he said. “There’s a money reader, a color identifier, I can go on Facebook, check my email.”

Growing up in a residential blind school for children in Guadalajara, Mexico, he said he and his fellow classmates used to fantasize about magical machines that would read any printed matter aloud. “Now that day is here,” said Esparza. He even looks forward to driverless vehicles, now being tested, and “maybe only two years away,” he said.

Progress Center is not a government organization but helps disabled adults use programs and resources available to them. There are 22 other centers for independent living in Illinois, around 650 nationwide.

The center focuses on helping disabled people with independent living, training and skills, information and referrals, peer counseling and advocacy.

In the past 15 months, Progress Center has served 139 people in Forest Park, 222 in Oak Park and 28 in River Forest, said staff member Anne Gunter. A second, satellite office is located in Blue Island. Esparza estimates there are 450,000 people with disabilities in Cook County.

Out of nursing homes

Moving people with disabilities under age 60 out of nursing homes, or “community reintegration,” has been a goal of Progress Center for years. The program is federally funded through the Dept. of Human Services/Division of Rehabilitation Services-Home Services Program.

The village of Oak Park has made 15 vouchers available for disabled adults to move into modified apartments from nursing homes, said Home Services Coordinator Art Johnson. Nursing home patients are identified by the Dept. of Health and Human Services as “individuals capable of living in the community on their own,” Johnson said.

The move saves money, since nursing home care can cost $50-75,000 per year, as opposed to $23-26,000 for a modified apartment with personal assistant.

“The biggest barrier is finding accessible apartments,” Johnson said. “Or finding apartments where a landlord’s willing to put in a ramp” or other accessibility features.

Once a client has made the move, they are able to hire a state-paid personal assistant. “The personal assistant is chosen by them. It can be a friend, a neighbor, even a relative,” said Esparza. “The only person it can’t be is a spouse.” If the client doesn’t have someone in mind, Progress Center can give them resources to find recommended personal assistants.

The organization also hosts peer groups who help qualified nursing-home patients answer questions and deal with the transition into an apartment.

Grants for home modification

For Forest Parkers, the Progress Center has special grants through Proviso Township to help with construction costs for making a residence more accessible. Up to $1,500 is available for home modifications such as installing grab bars or lifts, widening doors, installing ramps, flooring or modifying showers. Homeowners must use specific contractors for insurance reasons, Esparza said.

Modified telephones

Progress Center also provides no-cost, modified, high-volume telephones and text-talk phones for people with hearing loss. Residents must provide a doctor’s statement that the person has a hearing limitation and proof of residency, social security number and the last phone bill for a land line.

“Consumers can complete an application, come in and test the phones, and in a couple weeks they get the phone by mail at home,” Esparza said.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...