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.
“Most people think that if you sign, you can go anywhere and sign. But this is American Sign Language. A lot of people are under the perception that if you are deaf, you can lip-read. No. The best lip-reader only gets about 50 percent of what’s being said. The rest of it is knowing what the conversation is about and watching body language. I lead the conversation a lot so I know where we’re going with it.
“But what makes us different and unique is the fact that we live here, as opposed to someone in another center not being from that area and not really knowing what goes on in that community. We know because we’re here 24/7. We understand it and we hear it. We know the culture,” she said.
Curry vigilantly polices 125th Street and is quick to come down on a business that is not wheelchair accessible. As a result, the entrance of every business along the main thoroughfare is wheelchair accessible.
Last summer, Curry walked along 125th Street with a young woman in a wheelchair to teach her more about being aware of accessibility.
“I wanted this person to walk with me and see what was and was not accessible along the 125th Street corridor,” Curry said.
“You’re in a chair; tell me how this works for you. I have a cane and I know what works and does not work for me. We went to Nicole’s and GameStop. They had big steps in front. We forced the issue to get them to get ramps. The two stores now have portable ramps and decals in the window to let people know to ring the bell for the ramp. It’s about access for everyone with all disabilities. We were going river to river, taking a block a week, making sure that everything was accessible.
“If you come out on St. Nicholas, you’ll see a sign on each corner that says, ‘Blind Person Crossing.’ We were able to show that we have a heavy number of blind people in this area. The train stop is right there. A lot of people use the same guided method as our former governor. They use human guides. They don’t use the dogs and don’t always use the cane. I noticed people having a hard time crossing the street.
“The other thing that we did was at Popeye’s. It used to just have that one entrance with the step. Everyone has the right to have access to greasy food. I love the biscuits, but that step up front was tedious. What caught my attention was the number of people in wheelchairs outside of Popeye’s giving money to people asking them to get food for them. I went up and asked if they were OK with it not being accessible. They never thought about it because it had been that way since it opened,” she said.
“We contacted the New York City Office for Civil Rights. We had people who were disabled call them and file a complaint, and then they came and saw it. It took a few months because they had to make a door with a permanent entrance ramp right in front of the entrance to the subway, but we got it done. People with walkers, wheelchairs and strollers have access.”
HILC is a team effort. Curry runs a tight, efficient operation in which he is aided by an equally dedicated staff, most of whom also have disabilities.
“Walk-ins are welcome, but we prefer appointments because it’s your time. No one interrupts. You’re not a number. You’re not part of the technocrats. We’re here to work with you. We don’t use the word ‘help.’ Help fosters dependency. We assist. We show you how to advocate for yourself so that you can teach others. If my advocate is sick, quits or gets fired, you’re issue is not sitting. Sometimes people don’t understand that because they’ve been taught to just sit and wait.
“No, I’m not going to help you. If this place lost funding and had to close down, what would you do? You can’t wait for the next agency to replace us. You’ve got to be able to do it. It’s like having your own job.”
What’s next on Curry’s plate?
“The curb cuts must be maintained and repainted in the bright yellow. That’s part of what we’re doing now. We work with the high schools and local colleges to get local interns to see what’s accessible. We can then get back to the city and let them know what we need. My goal is to cover all of Central Harlem,” Curry said. She is also working on improving the lack of access to services in courtrooms and prisons.
To contact the Harlem Independent Living Center, call (212) 222-7122. Hearing impaired clients may call Sorenson VP at (646) 755-3092.