Disabled Gun Violence Survivors in Chicago: An Initial Needs Survey



Based on our findings, we developed the following recommendations specifically for Access Living’s work in the next few years. These recommendations can also be applied to other disability-led organizations.

Peer Support Mentors

Based on what we learned in the listening sessions, we recommend that a team of peer support mentors be available who can provide individual and group peer counseling sessions for people disabled by gun violence.

These peer support sessions will serve two purposes:

  1. The sessions will help disabled gun violence survivors connect to a community of people who have similar experiences, which will help them feel less alone.
  2. The sessions will help disabled gun violence survivors learn to navigate the day-to-day physical and attitudinal barriers they experience.

Ideally, the peer support mentors would represent a spectrum of gun violence survivors: men and women, younger and older survivors, and people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. They should also be inclusive of all disability types.

Many of the survivors we spoke to — both men and women — shared that in most cases, this work was their first experience talking with other gun violence survivors. Some also shared a preference for mental health professionals with lived experience in gun violence and a network of support systems that can be available after a person becomes a survivor of gun violence. Finally, the survivors see a need for increased support services, such as therapy and case worker guidance for family members supporting the survivor.

Many gun violence survivors were unable to work for months or years after their injury and saw their employment opportunities change. Culturally, many men and immigrants see themselves as providers and supporters for their families, as do people in their community.

When they can’t meet those expectations, they lose their identity and role within the family structure. They now need to be cared for. Peer supporters can play a critical role in helping reframe economic expectations and cultural competency about what it means to be a provider.

The new peer support mentor position at Access Living would provide the critical link of lived experience for the disabled survivor community, leading support groups and building community among gun violence survivors. We anticipate immediate increased demand for this program among more specialized identity groups (women-focused, men-focused, LGBTQ+, etc.). Should demand increase, the peer mentor would then coordinate peer support leaders as needed. Many individuals we interviewed and built relationships with during the first part of this process have already shown interest in maintaining a connection with Access Living and participating in peer mentor groups.

Peer Navigators

In addition to peer support, another new staff person needed at Access Living for survivors of gun violence is a role we’re calling a peer navigator. This person would work directly with survivors via hospitals and rehab centers to connect them with all the independent living supports they’re likely to need: like housing search assistance, employment, and personal assistant services.

What this role offers survivors is not unlike what CILs already provide. Still, there are nuances for gun violence survivors that should be recognized; aligned race, age and specific lived experience will make these peer navigators more effective. They will be a critical link for people who have become disabled through gun violence. Through peer navigators, people who leave rehab can connect with the community resources they need to maximize their independence. Peer navigators can also help people already living in a community and facing barriers connect with community resources.

This role could also support individual advocacy related to the needs of disabled gun violence survivors, such as helping them access medical equipment like a wheelchair or other mobility device, or mental health services they may need to thrive in their community.

Disability Inclusion Competence Training for the Health Care Sector

Access Living should harness its training capability to educate the gun violence survivor support network. Disability inclusion and competency training on both disability awareness and gun violence survivor culture is very overdue and needed for the medical community — including emergency departments, hospital and rehab staff, and the various caseworkers who work with gun violence survivors.

Since 2016, Access Living has run the Disability Inclusion Institute. This consulting arm of Access Living works with organizations to create more inclusivity accessibility. It also educates organizations on disability etiquette and how to implement organizational change. According to our participants, this same model is needed within the gun violence survivor care community. In addition to not understanding the impact of acquiring a disability and what it means to now be a part of the disability community, survivors said many caregivers held racist and outdated views about them as victims and survivors, going so far as to make them feel victimized again.

Immigrant Inclusive Supports

Access Living’s work in this area needs to be inclusive of immigrants with varying status. All survivors we spoke to were Black and/or Latinx, and some were also immigrants who were undocumented their fear of deportation due to their injuries. They did not always seek medical care because they didn’t know there were resources and support available for undocumented persons ho could not pay for their medical care regardless of their status.

It has been an advocacy priority of Access Living to ensure the civil rights of people with disabilities regardless of immigration status, and all disabled people need to know these are rights owed to them without fear of retaliation by medical professionals. We see many disabled immigrants turned away from care because they lack insurance and identification.

Partnership for Mental Health Support

Access Living should seek a partnership to help survivors more easily access culturally competent mental health support. Many survivors spoke of needing mental health support for themselves and their families. The survivors shared common experiences, like having feelings of loss over their lives before their injury. Therapy involving loss counseling would be helpful as survivors process their new life. Another area could be substance abuse support, as some survivors mentioned that they turned to substances as a way of coping with their experiences. Survivors also said that support for their families would be beneficial.

Employment and Financial Resources

Access Living should offer support for survivors who need employment and financial resource support. Survivors shared positive and negative experiences regarding employment. Some lost their jobs because they could no longer perform their responsibilities, while other people shared that their employer accommodated them after they become disabled. Employment resources are needed to educate survivors about their rights and how to advocate for accommodations with their employers.

Many survivors shared that before their injury, they were the head of their household. After becoming disabled, they needed to provide for their family. Most often, employment and financial support services are geared toward the individual, not the family structure. Additionally, once a survivor gets disability aid, some cannot return to work in their original industry, like construction workers or emergency responders. This forces them to seek new skills or positions to provide for their dependents. However, there is a current lack of accessible resources to help people develop new skills

Building Power and Support Through Coalitions

We recommend creating a resource and advocacy coalition centered on the needs and experiences of gun violence survivors. Some people work every day on gun violence issues, but few at the intersection of survivors with disabilities. We know this for a fact because Chicago’s gun violence survivors who became disabled told us over and over that their needs are not being met.

The Chicago human services sector had picked up on the needs of this group, but this sector generally needed direction on disability. The response from the community partners to our outreach was overwhelmingly positive, with every community organization, hospital and government agency telling us they supported our efforts. They have been seeing a great need for disability competence and a focused program delivery for the gun violence survivors who have become disabled.

We will continue to do capacity-building through training, advocacy and coalition-building around systemic change for survivors of gun violence who became disabled. As previously mentioned, while there are initiatives centered on preventing gun violence, there are few supports for what happens after one is affected. We have identified a few partners that provide mutual aid funds to survivors of gun violence and their families; however, disability education is not a part of their support process.

We plan to continue building our coalitions and further establish ourselves as trusted partners that will provide disability competency training and push for inclusive legislation and policies. Additionally, we have noticed little communication between organizations on the ground and government programs meant to provide financial compensation or support. As an organization with established cross-sector relationships, we hope to bring together partners from all sectors to increase communication and identify collaborative solutions to overarching, systemic problems.