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Health & Wellness

Independent Living Centers gradually reopening

Western New York Independent Living
COVID-19 restrictions will greet clients as soon as they enter an Independent Living Center.

Independent Living Centers across Western New York are opening up more activities in the agency's centers to meet the gradual opening of the wider society.

Credit Western New York Independent Living
Partitions now separate clients and staff.

For almost 40 years, the Western New York Independent Living has helped those who have an array of disabilities, even more important in a time when every activity is made more difficult because of COVID-19. CEO and founder Doug Usiak said the centers never quite closed down, although essential adjustments were made, like using PPE to provide personal services and turning little-used transportation vans into vehicles to deliver food, medical supplies and even the paperwork to provide medical services.

Usiak said with customers often confined to their homes, high-tech has helped, from smart phones to voice-activated computers.

Credit Western New York Independent Living
Boxes of PPE fill the center's storeroom.

"The advancement of assistive technology has really been helpful through things like drag/dictate," he said. "The voice-activated programming is very good. The voice output is extremely good. A lot of these bridges have been crossed prior to the pandemic. The issue is making sure that the appropriate people have access to that assistive technology."

Usiak said Independent Living has spent $170,000 to make offices safe for workers and to provide the much-sought-after personal protective equipment. However, there is psychological damage because so many of the services the agency provides aren't done person-to-person anymore because of social distancing rules, which also keep clients from being able to go out and have a beer or an ice cream together.

Credit Western New York Independent Living
Surfaces are cleaned regularly to prevent infection.

"It's pretty hard to fist bump a video screen. But it's also difficult for the staff," he said. "We are a peer-run program, peer-run services. As we interact with each other. As we interact with the consumers, the people that we serve, this is always on the table, the fact that what you're feeling is normal."

He said perhaps the biggest hit was supportive employment.

"Supportive programs. Support groups. We have seen the cancellation of some programs that are not needed or are not being funded by the various levels of government because they don't have the individuals who want to cluster or gather in one area," Usiak said. "Where we used to work with groups of 35, that same area can probably only hold 20% of that."

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