At twenty years old, Mandy, a former National Guardsman, was involved in a car accident that caused traumatic brain injury and significantly impacted her mobility and speech. Moving from her parents’ home to her own apartment in a building managed by Over the Rainbow Association (OTR) was a fundamental part of transitioning to a more independent life after the accident. “Living at Harrison Square gave me an opportunity to live on my own,” Mandy says. “I was surrounded by neighbors who were caring and helpful.” Now, at age thirty, Mandy lives across the street in her own

Mandy, a former Over the Rainbow Association resident, paracycles competitively.

condo and regularly competes—including internationally—in paracycling. When they opened a thrift store in 1974, the founders of OTR never imagined that forty-five years later, their venture would be helping someone like Mandy. They were a small group of parents in Des Plaines, Illinois, focused on raising funds to create independent housing options and a better future for their children with physical disabilities. The thrift store flourished, their vision broadened, and the initiative evolved into a nonprofit that has helps hundreds of individuals with disabilities each year.

Over the Rainbow Association has fourteen buildings across northern Illinois, including the Kirwan Apartments, which will open in early 2020.

Today, OTR’s mission is to encourage independent living for individuals with disabilities by creating affordable, accessible, barrier-free housing and offering person-centered services to residents. Since opening their first building in 1982, OTR has grown significantly. At the start of 2019, OTR had thirteen buildings—and over 300 residents—across northern Illinois. They plan to open a fourteenth, the Kirwan Apartments, in Waukegan in early 2020. The buildings exceed ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards and have won numerous awards.

OTR residents come from a variety of backgrounds; some have experienced homelessness or have previously lived in state-funded nursing homes. All have struggled to find affordable, accessible housing. In 2019, Illinois ranked 44th among all 50 states on its overall performance serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to a report published by the ANCOR Foundation and United Cerebral Palsy. It ranked 49th on measures for promoting independence. Courtney Stocking, a member of OTR’s advisory board, spoke to The Daily Northwestern about her experience searching for wheelchair-accessible housing after she graduated college. She says she and her father looked at more than 1,000 places, but many of the buildings advertised as accessible had serious issues: no elevators, or not enough space in the bathroom to maneuver her wheelchair.

Eric Huffman, Executive Director of OTR, says there isn’t enough independent and accessible housing, and the options are limited—it can cost thousands of dollars to retrofit an apartment or condo, and people with mobility impairments often live with their parents or move into nursing homes at a young age. OTR is working to change that.

“The need is enormous,” said Huffman. “We‘ve provided a home for people who didn’t have a real home before.”

OTR residents typically pay no more than 30% of their income in rent. They are offered a wide variety of enrichment activities and programs, including cooking, art, yoga, massage therapy, and more. Residents can also access advocacy and one-on-one supportive services.

Mary is one of the residents who enjoys taking part in OTR’s Resident Service Program offerings, including therapy at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago and arts programs: “I appreciate everything that is offered by the Resident Service Program.”

Before moving into OTR’s Hill Arboretum Apartments in Evanston in November 2018, Mary lived at home. With limited accessibility and family members who didn’t know how to help, she found it a daily struggle. “The biggest positive change since moving to OTR is being able to be independent and the ability to do things on my own,” she said. “I no longer have to wait on the help of others.”

Find out more about OTR.