HILC makes 125th Street accessible for everyone

Jasmin K. Williams | 5/25/2011, 9:23 a.m.

Harlemites living with the challenges of limited sight, hearing or mobility have a place in the community that addresses their unique issues and teaches them how to navigate life in a more independent way. The Harlem Independent Living Center (HILC), located at 289 St. Nicholas Ave., not only addresses the critical needs of Harlem's disabled community, but, more importantly, it also teaches them to become self-sustaining. The HILC is well-planned, not only in its mission, but also in how it it's designed.

Everything from the lighting, room colors, desks, shelving to even the door handles are designed with optimum accessibility in mind. There are computers designed for the visually impaired and a picture-type phone that allows hearing impaired users to use sign language.

The dedication to provide access to those with disabilities is not limited to the center. Harlem's 125th Street corridor, from traffic lights to businesses and curbs, have also been made easier to access due to the diligent efforts of HILC's director, Christina Curry.

When you first meet Curry, you see a bright, articulate, attentive, witty woman with a big smile, hearty laugh and firm handshake. You'd never guess that she had any physical challenges. But in fact, Curry is deaf, visually impaired and has trouble walking and sitting. She's the perfect person for the job. Curry is a staunch advocate for her clients because she is one of them.

"I'm the Black, Republican Jew who can't hear, can't see, can't breathe, can barely walk. Here I am. How ya like me now?" is how she likes to introduce herself. Curry has been HILC's executive director since 2001.

"This is an agency that I hold near and dear to my heart. The history of independent living councils started in California in 1973, when those who had physical disabilities took over a campus to protest the fact that it was not accessible. Each city and state has an independent living center, but we are not one big coalition. We are loosely linked," Curry told the Amsterdam News.

"New York State has an independent living council with a plan that is given to the governor. This plan dictates what all the independent living centers should be doing within a five-year period, permanent systemic change, technical advice and individual advocacy. We do community outreach. It's something that all independent living centers do. We're about advocacy.

"Because we're in Harlem, there's advocacy fatigue. We started it. Our consumers have more immediate concerns as opposed to our sister centers. It's more crisis-driven. We're here to work in the moment," Curry said.

"We're from here. We have people who work here, who were born in Harlem Hospital. We look like our consumers. There's a large Black, deaf community here. We are them. I know the slang of sign language. It varies. You have sign language for teens, the GLBT community, someone who is older or from the South. They have sign language for collard greens and cabbage that we don't use here. It's regional. It's the same as when you hear a teenager speak and you say, 'I know you're speaking English, I see your mouth moving, but I don't quite know what you're saying.' It's the same for our teens who are deaf," she said.