STAR Point Transcript - Taylor Kearns from the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living
>> From the depths of ingenuity, to the heart and soul of assistive technology for people with disabilities, STAR is a System of Technology to Achieve Results.
Earle Harrison: Hello and welcome to another edition of STAR Point. My name is Earl Harrison. STAR Point is a project of the Minnesota STAR program, a System of Technology to Achieve Results.
We've got one guest in the studio today. His name is Taylor Kearns from the Metropolitan Center For Independent Living.
Welcome, Taylor. Why don't we go ahead and start out by finding out what it is you do at MCIL.
Taylor Kearns: Program manager at MCIL. I manage a couple of our projects, one of which being our VA project where we provide veterans with disabilities a variety of home-based and community-based services. We also try to teach them some technology skills so they're able to increase their ability to live independently through the use of technology, you know, a lot of resources available on the Internet. And we try to raise awareness to those resources and help give them the skills to be able to effectively use those resources.
I also manage our youth with disabilities program, otherwise known as our Transition Program, and basically what we're trying to do is we work a lot with local school districts in trying to assist youth as they transition from school-aged responsibilities, you know, just going to school and maintaining a part-time job, to you know adult-related roles in society, you know, having a job, going to college, maintaining a home, you know, being a part of the community, that kind of thing. So those are my two normal responsibilities at MCIL. I also do a little bit of our -- I do all of our network administration and troubleshooting all that stuff for the computers at MCIL.
Earle Harrison: So you work with youth and you work with veterans, essentially?
Taylor Kearns: Yeah, currently. And one of the things that we are looking to do in terms of I had mentioned earlier, the training that we provide veterans in using computers. We are really looking at trying to offer that to the general public, meaning individuals with disabilities, because we are an organization that does provide services to individuals with disabilities. So that's something that we're really working on on trying to provide people.
Earle Harrison: Okay. So it's all disabilities.
Taylor Kearns: All disabilities, yes. That's one of the unique qualities of MCIL is that we don't require somebody to present to us some sort of documentation of their disability or, you know, a specific kind of disability. We take all comers. So that's kind of a unique quality of MCIL.
Earle Harrison: Okay. So anybody who comes through the door, who states or indicates that they have a disability of some sort or another, receives services?
Taylor Kearns: Yes, absolutely.
Earle Harrison: How did you get involved with MCIL?
Taylor Kearns: Well, probably about three years ago, I came to David Handcocks, who is our executive director, and kind of presented to him an idea of some programming that I thought was appropriate for the organization. Being that we are an independent living center, which is an organization that really, I think, has a good feel of what's going on in the community and really responds to the needs of the community very well and is an organization that continually tries to keep tabs on what's needed out there, and trying to identify solutions to those needs, I went to David and said, hey, you know this is a program that we should really be doing and kind of talked about how technology is really an empowering tool for individuals with disabilities and how the disability community is actually one of the lowest user groups in terms of being able to effectively use the information technology, which is a term called the digital divide. It's used in political circles. It's the gap between those who can effectively use IT communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot. Factors being training and education, which is one of the biggest factors within the digital divide, just because a lot of people don't know how to use a computer effectively or don't know what's out there.
Financial reasons is another issue. Computer equipment is very expensive. Internet access, that's another monthly charge that some people find really difficult to pay. Such things as basic and adaptive equipment. Say somebody with a sensory disability, a visual disability, a hearing disability, kind of makes surfing the Internet with just a regular computer somewhat difficult. So there's added need for some extra equipment, and some of that equipment can be quite expensive. So it's difficult for some people to obtain that kind of access.
Other factors such as inaccessible web design for those with visual disabilities and readers. Sometimes websites aren't accessible to that equipment. And for those who may not have a computer in their home where access to computers at a public library, maybe that library is not physically accessible or, you know, the grounds are difficult.
Language is another factor in the digital divide, just because the Internet is primarily written in English and for English reading and speaking individuals. So for those who don't speak English, that's a huge issue.
The whole idea behind our program is to address the training and education side of the digital divide, which I think is one of the biggest barriers to using information technology.
Another thing, with the financial barriers, we provide people the ability to come into our center and utilize our tech lab and access the Internet through there.
Earle Harrison: It sounds to me as though the brunt of the training that you offer is on focused on information technology and web accessibility, is that accurate, or do you work with some office productivity tools such as the Microsoft Suite.
Taylor Kearns: What I can do here is I can give you just a sample of some of the classes that we provide some of our veterans. I'll just go through kind of the basic spring class schedule.
When we get veterans into our program, one of the first classes we have them take is our introductory computers and the Internet which is basically an introduction how a computer and the Internet can help improve their life. We really try to individualize it and try to make them understand how this can impact their own life. We also take a historical look at how computers and the Internet have become such a huge part of the society.
Then we take a look at the technical aspects of the computer and Internet what's inside that box, what makes it work just because people are kind of interested in seeing how it all works together. So that's our first class.
A real important skill people need is just using search engines to navigate the Internet because there's so much out there and there's just no possible way that you could possibly know where all these websites are. Using a search engine is very key to navigating the Internet so we try to teach them the basic skills on how to use that. Learning how to use e-mail to connect with friends, family and you know communicate with politicians, community members, customer service resources on, you know, various company websites is pretty important. It's very useful.
From the independent living side of things, we have a class on shopping on the Internet. We try to show people how the Internet can save people time, money and get products that best meet the needs of the individual.
Earle Harrison: The Internet is very much an equalizer.
Taylor Kearns: Absolutely, absolutely. I agree 100%. And in the best part of it is you don't ever have to leave your house you don't have to go scurrying around. Another class we offer, we look at financial resources on the Internet, helping people bank and paying bills on line, can be incredibly helpful for some people. We also offer a rec and leisure class, how to use the Internet to find out what fun activities are going on in people's communities, time and direction to movies, concerts, cultural events, community events. So many things are available if you go to Saint Paul or Minneapolis newspaper, City Pages, those types of resources that are available. The Internet is also great for learning about information on personal hobbies.
Like I said, I'm a camper. I do some mountain biking. I do stuff like that. I'm always on the Internet on discussion boards, finding out information about products and, you know, talking with people about different camping sites up in the Boundary Waters. Getting tickets to go for hockey games. I do it all on the Internet. It's a fantastic resource.
Earle Harrison: It sounds like you got it as bad as I do.
Taylor Kearns: Yeah, I'm a total, absolutely Internet junkie, there's no doubt about it.
Earle Harrison: As far as people with disabilities go, too, people need to keep in mind is that according to the census 2,000 last I heard there were 54 million folks in the United States with disabilities. And this is a pretty healthy segment of your constituency if you're a politician.
Taylor Kearns: You bet.
Earle Harrison: Or if you're a merchant.
Taylor Kearns: The largest minority group in the United States. And in terms of shopping on the Internet, there's a lot of purchasing power within 54 million people. It's really unfortunate and surprising when you find a large website that it's not really an accessible website for one reason or another.
Earle Harrison: At that point I'm just moving right along. They don't get my money.
Taylor Kearns: Unfortunately, that's right.
Earle Harrison: You're listening STAR Point, a project of the Minnesota STAR program, a System of Technology to Achieve Results. I'm speaking with Taylor Kearns from the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, and we're talking about various services that MCIL have to offer people with disabilities in the state of Minnesota. There are several MCILs, or centers for independent living.
Taylor Kearns: Correct.
Earle Harrison: Across the nation.
Taylor Kearns: Yes, absolutely.
Earle Harrison: Can I expect to receive the same services at any of the centers for independent living that I would receive at your particular center?
Taylor Kearns: That's a great question. There are over 500 centers for independent living in the United States. There's also centers in Canada, Europe, Africa, South America. The core services that all of these centers provide, information referral our independent living skills group which takes individuals and tries to get an independent living plan down and helps that individual continually work towards their goals that's another core service. Advocacy, both individual and systemic, meaning let's say somebody comes to us and says I'm having a problem with housing, I'm having a problem with this organization or these county services, we can actually help that individual kind of navigate the county system and the state benefits and that kind of thing. And also on the systemic level we do work with politicians and various state level groups. And trying to promote the betterment of those with disabilities, trying to address various issues within the community.
So we also do that. And then we have our fourth core service is peer support, linking people you know with disabilities with other people with disabilities. It's kind of promote connecting with people and learning through others. You know kind of like a peer mentoring type situation. Different centers for independent living are going to have different needs. Our center also has a variety of other different services that we provide outside of our core services. One of which is our ADA program, which we have a person on staff that helps people navigate any sort of ADA -related issues. We have a ramp project. Jim Williams is the head guy there. He often gets connected with counties and helping people build ramps in their homes and stuff like that. It's a very well-known project and it's been going for quite a long time. And he does a great job on it.
We also have a personal attendant services program that I believe is about, we have about 75 consumers in that. So that's kind of -- that's a big program for us. We just recently added a travel program where somebody helps train other people on how to use our bus system and various other transportation modes. And then we have our technology lab. So not all centers for independent living are going to be offering these kinds of services. This is just something that we feel is a need within our community.
Now, another center for independent living, let's say in Hibbing or Rochester, they may have different projects or different programs. But all centers for independent living do have those core services.
Earle Harrison: You're listening to STAR Point, a project of the Minnesota STAR program. My name is Earle Harrison. My guest is Taylor Kearns of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living.
Taylor Kearns: A few other classes that we do offer using Microsoft Word is obviously a really important program for people to learn about you know if they're writing personal letters, doing reports, any kind of memos maybe even journaling or something like that.
We also offer an Outlook class, helping people learn how to use Outlook to manage their schedules to send emails, to do a variety of different personal business management type activities. And we do offer a PowerPoint presentation. We don't get a whole lot of people using that, but we do have a few people who are involved in various groups that you know they do presentations from time to time. So we do offer that. But my favorite class that we do offer and one of the classes that we have just been using with our veterans is our computer building course. And the whole idea behind this is rather than just purchasing them a computer and sticking it in their home, what we do is we have them build their own computer.
We identify all the parts that we need. Before that even we learn about how the computer works and what each component does and run down the hardware, the real geeky stuff and then we identify the components we want to use then we go down to a local computer retailer, purchase all the equipment and come back to MCIL and start slapping stuff together and loading up the operating system so they really get a feel for what works in a computer, how things work in a computer, what an operating system does and how you add software, how do you keep it updated. So it's kind of the old, like the old saying that you can give somebody a fish for a day but if you teach them to fish they can, you know, eat for a lifetime.
So the whole idea behind this is that if they ever have problems in the future they're going to be more knowledgeable in how to address these problems. So they won't be going to you know some sort of technical support company and saying I need to have this and you know oftentimes the people that work with individuals, they'll really try to talk over people's heads and use terminology that people have no clue about. Well, the whole idea behind this computer building course is people are going to have more of a grasp on the terminology and knowing what you know goes on in a computer and how to address problems if they do arise. So that's kind of the whole purpose behind that.
Earle Harrison: It's amazing, speaking as somebody with a visible disability, how patronizing some of these salespeople can be. They usually get away with that once with me.
Taylor Kearns: Absolutely, you know, that's another thing. With the digital divide is attitudinal barriers is that people just aren't knowledgeable or don't have experience, you know, being with people with disabilities. And they're like you said patronizing and they make assumptions what you can and cannot do and they don't even know who you are.
Earle Harrison: Exactly.
Taylor Kearns: So you know that's -- the nice thing about the computer building class is that they're going to know the hardware. They're going to know the process in putting it together and they're going to be more knowledgeable when they do have problems and have to talk to somebody.
Earle Harrison: I imagine they get a little pretty -- a little cocky, yeah, built my own computer.
Taylor Kearns: Yeah, it's really -- it's unbelievable. I mean it's one of my favorite things to do, because when I tell them we're going to be building a computer and we're going to be doing it together it's like I don't know how to do that there's no way I'll be able to do it. So at the end of the process, you know, I'm like there it is you built your computer. And just recently I had a veteran finish his up and he was just -- he was just so proud. And he's been telling all of his friends and his family, it's like yeah I built this computer and you know it was just really great to see the sense of accomplishment that he had at the end of the process. So I love that part. That's just my favorite.
Earle Harrison: And you warn these poor people that there's no end, there's no stopping now?
Taylor Kearns: Yeah, you know I try to say, hey, if you really get into this you can help other people, maybe build some friends, their own computer. They're like yeah, maybe I can do that. So it's kind of interesting to see them from the beginning points where there's like you know I'll never be able to do that, I don't want to do that, and to the end at the end of the process they're like thinking about building other computers for people and upgrading already. They're already wanting to upgrade and get a faster video cards. I've created a monster.
Earle Harrison: Exactly. So talk about funding. I know you've probably got a myriad of funding resources. But in the example you just gave where you're working with veterans with disabilities, do you work in conjunction with the work force centers or voc rehab? How does that work so they can actually -- who funds these machines that they build initially?
Taylor Kearns: Well, that's a program specific to the Veterans Affairs office here in, over in Fort Smelling. The VA provides us a fee for service. This is essentially a fee for service program. And so they you know pay us a fee for every hour that we work with these programs, MCIL will purchase the equipment and all the hardware but we get reimbursed from the VA through that. Where other individuals if they were to come to us say I want to build a computer they would probably have to do it, you know, pay for it themselves or identify some kind of funding resource that they would need to tap into, because we just don't have the finances to be able to be building computers for everybody. As much as we'd love to do it, we're just not able to.
The fee for service is a really big part of our general funding, actually, at MCIL. We're a little bit different in the sense that I believe the last time my executive director said I believe like 60 or 70% of our funding is generated through fee for service activities, such as our veterans program, our personal attendant services program. We do have a nursing home relocation program that also generates fees.
So a very small part of our of MCIL funding is derived from state grants or state monies, which is good, because recently within the past year, the last budget proposal from the Governor, he actually zeroed out centers for independent living and a real grassroots movement and a real interesting process, we were actually able to reinstate, get 70% of our funding reinstated.
Now, for some centers for independent living that are smaller and really depend on that state money, that's a pretty large chunk. That's a pretty large cut.
For us, it's definitely a large cut, but we were able to kind of withstand the storm, so to speak, and really kind of level out the highs and lows of state and federal funding by creating our own fee for service opportunities. So that's something we're pretty proud of.
Earle Harrison: Now, are the classes that you offer, are those given on a one-on-one basis, or are they actually beginning dates and end dates for each of those?
Taylor Kearns: Well, we usually schedule our classes a month at a time. I'm looking at our April class schedule right now. And this is just for our veterans. We've got some new people coming through our program now so we'll be doing the intro to computers and the Internet soon. Our tech lab can take up to about four people. It's really nice in the sense that people feel like they get that individual attention when they're struggling. You know, it's not an intimidating environment. Some people, when they hear they're going to be having classes, people, you know, kind of have a little bit of anxiety related to taking classes and I really assure them that it's a small group. We got four people in there. If somebody has a question or if we want to take things in a different direction, we can do that. You know, there's really no set procedure for these classes, other than trying to get through the content. So I really try to individualize it to the people that are participating.
But usually classes, we'll have two, three, sometimes four people. So it's really nice in that sense. And I think it makes it a much better learning environment for these individuals, you know, that may have a little bit more anxiety about taking classes. No grades either. No grading.
Earle Harrison: My guest is Taylor Kearns from the Metropolitan Center For Independent Living, program manager. And what was the other phrase you used earlier?
Taylor Kearns: Accidental techie.
Earle Harrison: Accidental tech by default.
Taylor Kearns: By default.
Earle Harrison: Okay. What about some of the fun things that you do?
Taylor Kearns: Fun things: Speaking personally or programmatically?
Earle Harrison: Technology and recreation, what types of things do you have people involved with.
Taylor Kearns: Well, that is a very fun topic. Like I was saying earlier, we really tried to raise awareness to the resources that are available out there, you know, finding out what time a movie is at what movie center, you know, trying to show them that you can go to let's say citypages.com and go to the movie section. Or if there's some kind of jazz band playing that you want to find out about, those kind of events that are going in your community that, just trying to show them where the resources are where they can kind of check that stuff out, find out how much it costs finding directions, doing that kind of thing.
Another fun aspect of the rec leisure portion of our programming is, you know, just teaching people how to use the Internet to supplement their own personal activities, like some people are into photography and there's so much resources out there on the Internet related to photography. You know, sporting events. A lot of people are into local sporting teams, the Twins, the Vikings, trying to show them where you can connect with other fans and discussion boards, things like that. I'm a big Gopher hockey fan. A little plug in for Pride on Ice website. I'm a frequent viewer and participant in that website, and I find out if I need tickets to a game, I get on there and say does anyone have a couple of tickets. And not once have I ever been let down. I must admit that if I've ever needed tickets I've gone here and the group of people that participate in that discussion board have always been, you know, have always had some tickets available. So you know just kind of, you know, trying to really pull out the individuals personal interests and trying to show them what resources are available out there that can kind of help them supplement, you know, their own activities. Like we get a lot of veterans that are into classic cars or fishing.
Earle Harrison: Do you get involved with any voice chat or gaming, on-line gaming?
Taylor Kearns: Now you're getting into my favorite discussion.
Earle Harrison: You have another favorite?
Taylor Kearns: This is the top of the mountain, so to speak. You know I'm an on-line gamer myself. And you know for some guys, they're not into that. They don't -- maybe a game of checkers or a game of solitaire is all they need. But on a number of occasions I've had some veterans I've shown them some games and stuff like that. They're complete addicts and they're calling me trying to figure out how to do this and how to do that. So that's another form of rec leisure for some people.
You know, for some of our veterans, for instance, we've got a lot of veterans with post traumatic stress disorders due to war-time activities or whatever. Sometimes sleep becomes a very difficult process for them. They can maybe sleep an hour at a time. And rather than, you know, sitting in front of the TV, you know, they maybe would like to play some games and kind of take their mind off whatever it was they were thinking about that was kind of keeping them from sleeping.
So a really good therapeutic outlet for some of these guys. And of course it's fun and games are meant to be simple, but for them it serves a real important purpose of really trying to take their mind off the things that they've been thinking about. But, yeah, the on-line gaming thing, it's just become huge. And anything from you know checkers or chess to more involved games like, I don't know if you've heard of the Battlefield series of video games, the first-person shooters and stuff like that, but those things are getting insane when we've got 64 people on-line talking, playing these games. It's just unbelievable. And it's as time goes on you are just going to be seeing more and more of this, more of these gaming options prevalent. It's great.
Earle Harrison: It's not unusual at all to have this kind of activity coming from three or four people in the same house where I live.
Taylor Kearns: Yes, absolutely. I gotta admit, I have a roommate. We game a lot. And we get on the phone. We call up all of our buddies. So at some points we have six, seven people, three-way calling each other, connected all talking and playing the same game and it's quite geeky.
Earle Harrison: My guest is Taylor Kearns, program manager from the Metropolitan Center For Independent Living located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. If you're listening to this program on demand, you can follow the paragraph from within -- well, where you got this link from and find the contact information. But, Taylor, why don't you go ahead and give that information once again.
Taylor Kearns: Well, first of all our website is www.mcil-mn.org and there you will find a variety of links to individuals on specific programs like you'll find my e-mail address there. We'll have e-mail addresses for people in the information referral. So that's really a great place to start. Our phone number is 651-646-8342.
Earle Harrison: Taylor Kearns from the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, program manager and --
Taylor Kearns: Accidental techie.
Earle Harrison: Thank you so much for taking your time out of your busy schedule to be with us today.
Taylor Kearns: Thank you so much. And I look forward to hearing more from the people out there and the STAR program.
>> From the depths of ingenuity, to the heart and soul of assistive technology for people with disabilities, STAR is a System of Technology to Achieve Results. STAR Point does not endorse or recommend any product, individual or agency. Information expressed on STAR Point is informational in nature and does not imply endorsement by STAR's funders, the National Institute of Disability Rehabilitation Research or the State of Minnesota.