‘I did it; so can you’

The Blount County delegation of People First attended the regional conference in Birmingham recently. Pictured are (from left): Dena Johnson, Trey Tatum, Clara Christopher, Carolyn Smith, Dana Folds, and Delana Smith. -courtesy Clara Christopher

The Blount County delegation of People First attended the regional conference in Birmingham recently. Pictured are (from left): Dena Johnson, Trey Tatum, Clara Christopher, Carolyn Smith, Dana Folds, and Delana Smith. -courtesy Clara Christopher

Dena Johnson has had her share of trial and suffering. Johnson, a Cleveland native, was born with a developmental disorder and hearing impairment. Even though she graduated from high school, she was perceived by many, including some members of her family, as a person who was limited in her capacity to integrate into the “normal” world. At the age of 44, Johnson still lived with her parents, had few relationships besides family, did not know how to drive a car and rarely left home except for a bit of experience working in fast food where she was usually relegated to menial tasks other workers did not want to do. She essentially lacked many of the social and independent living skills most people take for granted.

Fast forward four years to today and Johnson is living on her own, driving her own car, performing volunteer office work, shopping for groceries, making new friends, speaking and working as an advocate for others with disabilities, and looking forward to a bright future where she can achieve other goals. Johnson credits this transformation to the work of the advocacy organization Disability Rights & Resources (DRR). Specifically, she cites Clara Christopher, a peer advocate with DRR, for believing in her.

DRR’s mission statement is: “To empower people with disabilities to fully participate in the community.” Christopher says DRR strives to accomplish this by assisting clients with independent living skills like learning to cook, shopping, solving problems, training in computer skills, financial literacy, and job placement. The program also assists clients in claiming Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) from the Social Security Administration.

Christopher referred Johnson to the E. H. Gentry program, a vocational and educational rehabilitation program that is part of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega. It was there she learned many new skills, including how to drive. Living in a dorm there was also the first time she had lived anywhere other than with family.

DRR of Birmingham is part of a national non-profit organization. The local office serves people in Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, Walker and Blount counties, and is funded by federal dollars, grants from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitative Services and the United Way. The Blount County Commission provides in-kind assistance by providing office space.

Johnson and Christopher are also involved with the local chapter of People First, a self-advocacy group that works to ensure the rights of the disabled are realized. Members receive help on how to lobby businesses and government agencies to better provide access for the disabled. People First also sponsors peer support groups where members learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act, how to start a conversation, how to deal with depression and other topics. Johnson is the president of the Blount County chapter and the group’s region five representative.

People First is affiliated with the national organization Self Advocates Becoming Empowered. A national self-advocacy conference was held in Birmingham earlier this month. Johnson and Christopher attended, as well as three other members of People First from Blount County, Trey Tatum, Dana Folds and Delana Smith. There, Johnson fulfilled a couple more goals by not only attending, but also making a presentation to over 700 attendees. It was titled, “I Did It, So Can You.”

Johnson said in her presentation, “I have accomplished so much in four years. I want to thank People First of Alabama, Disability Rights and Resources, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitative Services, the Alabama Council on Developmental Disabilities, and my family for helping me accomplish these goals. I know my self-determination and the peer support I have received has helped me.” She is not finished, though. Johnson’s next objective is to attend the next national conference in Denver, Colo., in 2020. Christopher believes she will do it.

Information about DRR or any of the other groups mentioned can be obtained by contacting Clara Christopher at 205- 251-2223 ext. 400 or clara.christopher@drradvocates.org. DRR’s office is located at 1004 Second Avenue East in Oneonta.