POSTED ON JULY 31, 2013:
Coping with disabilities takes different approaches
Tulsans routinely pass a red brick building located at 815 S. Utica Ave. during their daily commute, unaware of the wonders contained inside. The Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges has benefited the Tulsa area for 56 years, but remains somewhat unfamiliar to the public. However, Executive Director Lori Long hopes the center's outreach program secures more community visibility.
"There are still too many people who don't know about the center," she said. "Once they come down here and find out about what we do, they are hooked."
She also wants to dispel any myths about the role that the center plays, saying that many people think of it as a nursing home.
"It's really not like that at all," she said.
In the early 2000s, an $8 million capital campaign encouraged the center's prosperous evolution. The award-winning architectural design promotes more independent mobility for members. When entering the facility, the unrestrained spaciousness captures one's attention immediately.
"Our members face enough barriers in the community that this place should be as barrier-free as possible," Long said.
Wide paths and oversized rooms provide ample space for movement, especially when associates rely on wheelchairs or walkers to travel.
Even as a newcomer, I felt an overwhelming sense of unity among the group and staff in the cozy atmosphere. A sea of smiling faces, personable greetings, and laughter constantly peppered the hallways and classrooms that I visited.
But that just scratches the surface. The center offers social activities, educational courses, support groups, and field trips. For example, the center counts its adjoining formal and craft art studios as one of their most popular services. A master's level art instructor guides the class in their drawing, mixed media, painting, and sculptural creations.
One particular day's tour through the artistic workroom finds a long counter filled with gourmet delicacies fit for a king -- colorful dishes of pasta, seafood, and desserts. To the art students' delight, the beautiful ceramic food is inedible. Although this laughable situation bears testament to the members superior creative skills, so does the center's annual holiday mart. This event gives individuals a chance to receive validation for their displayed craftsmanship, in addition to raising funds. Furthermore, common rotation of the museum-worthy interior adornments ensures the upkeep of fresh appearances and a chance for everyone's work to be seen.
While the art program provides a sound mind, participants need a healthy body to match. The fitness center draws the most people of all the areas combined, often functioning as a gateway for the organization's new clientele. Other than some physical therapy equipment, like standing frames and practice stairs, most of the exercise machines could easily belong to standard health clubs. Minor alterations found within the center's fitness equipment exhibit the only visible difference between theirs and more mainstream gyms. These additions to the exercise machines accommodate members' special needs more efficiently.
For instance, their stationary bicycle seats sit on tracks easily allowing individuals to transfer from their wheelchair to the workout equipment. By far, the standout feature of the gym was the ERGYS machine -- the same one utilized by almost everyone's favorite Superman the late Christopher Reeve. Paraplegics with spinal cord injuries stick electrode pads on their body attached to electrical wires running to the machine, which functions by transmitting charged firings to the individual's muscles, stimulating them to avoid side effects of motionlessness. A computerized gauge then measures electrical firings in real-time percentages for the exerciser while they pedal.
In order to receive the center's plethora of services, including the ones mentioned, clients must meet several qualifications. They must possess sensory or mobility impairments, turn in a doctor's release form, and fill out a membership application. The center requires members to operate independently or to provide a caretaker if they are unable to do so. Paid assistants -- as well as friends or family -- can fill this position, as long as they facilitate full participation on the member's behalf.
Long described membership fees is on a sliding scale based on income, but, "The center never turns anyone away for their inability to pay." Participants can also seek aid through scholarships.
"The center provides close to $18,000 per year in scholarships. We really try to work with people. If people come in and say, 'we can only pay $10,' the center will scholarship most of it," she said.
All of the center's members are in good hands with Long heading the organization. She knows every single person's story about how they came to the center. She often brags about the members, encourages people during their tasks, and even asks some to model their skills for interested reporters. Her humanitarian attitude shines through.
Not every day is an easy one. However, Long's determination cannot be extinguished.
"It can truly be the most challenging of days," she said. "But all I have to do is take one step out into that hallway and my whole attitude changes. One more phone call, one more whatever I have to do, because they are worth it."
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