Access Living program equips people with skills to achieve their dreams

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Carleda Johnson, Access Living’s Independent Living Skills Coordinator, began the Access Living program Reaching Our Dreams in 2008. This project is geared toward youth with disabilities between 17 and 27 years old. The goal of Reaching Our Dreams is for the equip young people with disabilities with the tools to live independently and to have the most positive experience while doing so.

There are many practical skills that are learned in this program, such as navigating the Chicago Transit Authority transportation system, finding an apartment, banking information, and healthy eating and physical well-being on a budget. As coordinator, Johnson helps participants explore options for education and find schools that meet each member’s needs. If members of Reaching Our Dreams are not enrolled in school, Johnson tries to find them places to volunteer.

Even though Johnson is the facilitator of this group, the group is run in such a way that enables the participants to take control of the agenda and run some of the sessions. According to Carleda, this is an effort to be inclusive and allow the youth take a front-seat in their learning.

Jahmar Larry, 27, has been a part of this organization for almost a year and heard of it through a friend who was participating in Advance Youth Leadership Power (A group for Access Living youth) at the time. Larry is employed and a student at one of Chicago’s City Colleges. Larry identifies as a person a disability because of his vision impairment. He joined Reaching Our Dreams because he wanted to make himself more aware of other disabilities and how to handle them on a day-to-day basis.

Larry said, “Reaching Our Dreams allows me to see different perspectives, thoughts, and ideas about living independently.”
Larry emphasized that he has faced many barriers throughout his youth and Reaching Our Dreams has helped him learn how to navigate those barriers. “I always had a lot of problems with my glasses because of the technology and the stereotypes that are associated with people that wear them,” he said. “Reaching Our Dreams has taught me to fight against these stereotypes and live independently as a person with a disability."

He also said, since it is a large group of approximately 15 members, it allows them to plan and accomplish achievable goals. One thing Larry has done is to create his own accommodations to address his disability. Larry explained, “In order to even the playing field out and not be at a disadvantage, I have learned to use my memory to know the streets of Chicago as well as restaurant menus.”

Along with using his memory to assist with day-to-day activities, Larry has learned several other skills from Reaching Our Dreams. He said, “One of the things that this program prepared me to do is to cook. It makes living independently easier.” Larry add that his “favorite thing to cook would have to be steak.”

Overall, Larry had positive remarks about this program as well as Johnson. “This program is relevant to everyday life and there is no excuse to live dependently if you are involved with this program. We have an excellent leader [Johnson] and I think the leader reflects the excellence of the group.”

In the future, Larry hopes to teach history to high school students and will continue to be an advocate for people with disabilities. Reaching Our Dreams meets every other Friday of the month.