“We want people to realize that the disability community is one you might join at any time,” says Adam Ballard. “All it takes is an accident or injury or just getting older. And increasing access benefits everyone.”

Access Living and Progress Center Disability advocates from Cook County in front of the State Capitol in Springfield. Adam is front row, second from the right.

In particular, through his role as Housing & Transportation Policy Analyst at Access Living, Adam is dedicated to increasing access to good, affordable homes. “I’ve been a person with a disability my whole life,” he says when asked how he ended up working for the organization, which is committed to fostering an inclusive society that enables Chicagoans with disabilities to live fully–engaged and self–directed lives. Adam grew up knowing about CILs; he was raised in western Illinois, where he was connected with Stone-Hayes, the CIL based in Galesburg. “But I only really went to them when I needed help,” he remembers.

Later, when Adam was living independently as an adult in the Chicago area and working for CPS (Chicago Public Schools), a traumatic incident made him realize he wanted to refocus his life on advocacy. In 2008, Adam fell out of his wheelchair, broke both knees, and to spend four months recovering in a nursing home. “I realized how tenuous my freedom and independence were,” he says. He thought about all of the people with disabilities who would like to live on their own but are unable to. “And I knew part of the reason is that there isn’t enough housing for people with disabilities.”

Too many homes that might be affordable are not built with accessibility in mind, leaving Illinois residents with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities to navigate a maze of very limited (and expensive) accessible units, nursing homes, group homes, and segregated apartment complexes. Too often, people with disabilities and their families also encounter discrimination when looking for housing; cases concerning discrimination against people with mental and physical disabilities make up 52% of the fair housing charges filed in Illinois in 2017.

Adam set his sights on making a difference through joining the team at Access Living, an organization that has been a leading force in the disability advocacy community since it was established in 1980. Access Living is one of 46 founding organizations of Housing Action Illinois; our coalition formed when these groups recognized the need to tackle affordable housing at the state level. In the 30 years since, our organizations have maintained a close partnership.

Access Living has a vibrant team that combines knowledge and personal experience to deliver programs and services that equip people with disabilities to advocate for themselves.“I applied to every job opening they posted,” Adam remembers. He started out as a youth community organizer, but soon shifted to working in housing organizing and policy advocacy. “I want to change systems,” he says. “And I want help people who are part of affected communities to lead that change.”

When it comes to expanding housing choices for people with disabilities, “the basic overarching concept is universal design—making a place accessible to the widest range of users – and moving beyond just complying with existing law and regulations,” he explains. “A lot could be done if more architects and developers understood accessibility before making plans and breaking ground. Retrofitting homes later can get very expensive.” Besides, he points out, “Making a home more accessible to one person doesn’t make it less accessible to another. It can help, especially as you age. Expanding access to housing for people with disabilities is something we should all care about.”