August 30, 2014  

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Southern Miss Institute Helps Change Lives of People with Disabilities

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The Early Connections program is an important service provided by the Institute for Disability Studies at Southern Miss (Submitted photo).

To say the staff of the Institute for Disability Studies (IDS) at The University of Southern Mississippi simply strives to help Mississippians with disabilities would be vastly understating the group’s mission. Their commitment runs much deeper than that.

“People with disabilities have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else and should be afforded the same opportunities to reach their goals,” said IDS Executive Director Dr. Royal Walker Jr. “They are an important part of the fabric of our society and here at the Institute we are committed to offering assistance any way we can to help improve their lives. It is the right thing to do.”

For more than 30 years IDS has provided a variety of programs to assist individuals with disabilities and their families with priority areas such as housing, early intervention, inclusive child care, assistive technology, recreation, health, education, and family support.

All Mississippians with disabilities are eligible to receive assistance through IDS, regardless of gender, race, religious affiliation or socio-economic status. The overarching theme of the Institute is to pave a pathway to a better life for people of all ages – infants, toddlers, school-age children, youth, workers, parents, families and seniors.

Case in point: Jackson, Miss. resident April Lindsey, who realized her dream of home ownership through the IDS-sponsored Mississippi Home of Your Own program. Through the program grants of up to $15,000 are available to eligible borrowers with disabilities. Since 1997, HOYO has assisted 454 people with disabilities and their families in 60 Mississippi counties in becoming homeowners.

“It was hard to make ends meet. If your housing is unstable, you can’t focus on important things,” said Lindsey, who has three children, including one with a disability. “Now that I am in my home I can provide stability for my children and can focus on things that are important, like my children’s education and health.”

IDS is a member of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, a network of 67 interdisciplinary centers in the United States and its territories working to advance policy and practice for and with individuals with developmental and other disabilities, their families, and communities.

With a new Technology Learning Center on the Gulf Coast, plus regional offices in Jackson, Tupelo and Indianola, the Institute continues to expand its service capabilities to every corner of the state. “Our goal is to have programs available in all 82 counties,” said Walker. “We’re getting there.”

In 1981, IDS (then known as the University Affiliated Program) had a budget of $150,000 and a staff of five. In 1992 the program was elevated to institute status, prompting a change to its current name. Since that time, funding has expanded to an estimated $7 million a year with more than 50 employees statewide.

The Institute receives the majority of its funding from federal and state grants. Private businesses and other non-profit organizations also provide substantial contributions, but Walker concedes that financial challenges remain.

“We’re very fortunate and grateful to have our grant funding renewed on a consistent basis, but we also recognize that there are a lot of other agencies competing for financial support in these tough economic times,” said Walker. “That’s why we never take what we do here for granted.”

IDS’ range of services and programs is too vast to list in one story. But a couple of programs, in particular, merit special recognition:

·         Project TRIAD implements a Youth Information, Training and Resource Center to assist unserved and underserved youth with disabilities who are transitioning from school to adult life. The focus of the project is access to postsecondary training opportunities for academic and leadership development skills needed for employment, self-determination, community engagement and leadership. The program provides technical assistance and training for disability support services staff and career counselors from high schools in the 15 South Mississippi counties, Pearl River Community College, Jones County Junior College and The University of Southern Mississippi.
 

·         Early Connections operates as part of the Lamar County School District in partnership with the Institute. The program provides early childhood education and developmental services across all income levels for children who are typically developing and children who have special needs. The program serves children, both with and without special needs, ages 6 weeks to 5 years.

IDS co-director Dr. Jane Siders has served with the program since 1981 and delights in the Institute’s impressive evolution.

“I have truly enjoyed witnessing the growth of our institute and with that growth the increased numbers of university students training, model programs in the area of community and school inclusion expanded and increased numbers of individuals and their families served,” said Siders. “I am most proud, however, of the dedicated staff that over the years has truly believed in our mission and looked beyond a ‘job’ to meet the many needs of individuals with disabilities and their families.”

As for future target areas, Walker notes that transportation remains a critical issue for people with disabilities. While IDS works tirelessly to help clients find gainful employment, Walker points out that oftentimes getting to and from those respective jobs can prove daunting.

For the thousands who have benefitted from IDS services, there are countless others who need similar assistance. And that is the primary reason Walker and his colleagues never lose sight of their mission.

“Any one of us could find ourselves in that type of situation, faced with a disability,” he said. “And that is why we continue to labor in the vineyards, doing everything we can to improve people’s lives.”

For more information about the Institute for Disability Studies at Southern Miss, call 601.266.5163 or visit: http://www.usm.edu/ids/

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