Access to Independence of Cortland County to celebrate 20th anniversary

By Chad Underwood
Access to Independence

Access To Independence started in 1986 as a grassroots advocacy organization in Cortland. Several human service agencies, local government officials and concerned citizens realized a lack of physical accessibility throughout the County. They formed the Cortland County Accessibility Committee under the auspices of CAPCO (the local Community Action Program).

For nearly a decade, the CCAC spearheaded initiatives that aimed to combat the lack of accessibility, including a Downtown beautification sidewalk project and the Sheriff’s Accessible Parking Enforcement Program (SHAPE).

In 1997, with heightened awareness, the need for a centralized advocacy and resource center led to the creation of the Cortland County Access Center (CCAC), a satellite of the Ithaca-based Finger Lakes Independence Center (FLIC).

The center secured funding Fran Pizzola assumed the role of volunteer coordinator out of a single room in the County Office Building.

On May 11, 1998, Access to Independence of Cortland County, Inc. (ATI) incorporated as a nonprofit organization in NYS with the following purposes:

  • To provide information and support services to people with disabilities, the community and organizations within Cortland County;
  • To provide guidance and advocacy to people with disabilities in all areas that effect their choice to participate fully and independently in the community;
  • To advocate for the removal of attitudinal and structural barriers that affect the inclusion of people with disabilities, including disability stigma; and
  • To increase public awareness of the needs of people with disabilities.

In 2001, thanks to advocacy efforts by the CCAC Membership, including Fran Pizzola and her family, ATI secured dedicated funding to become New York State’s 36th Independent Living Center (ILC), which Pizzola led. ILC’s are community-based, consumer-controlled, non-residential organizations that provide a variety of resources and advocacy for people with a wide range of disabilities. ILC’s are run by people with
disabilities.

In 2002, ATI’s Executive Director, Mary E. Ewing, worked with Pizzola, Board Members and newly hired staff, to develop a sustainable organizational infrastructure, to launch the provision of resources and advocacy to people with disabilities, and to facilitate community collaboration around disability issues. Over the next seven years, ATI leveraged base funding to expand its service focus from information & referral, peer counseling, advocacy, nursing home transition and diversion and independent living skills training to include statewide systems advocacy, a ramp program, a loan closet of durable medical equipment and peer mentoring.

In 2009, ATI enacted its first-ever, five-year strategic plan, to implement streamlined financial and operational protocols, and to expand fund diversification efforts. Over the next five years, ATI’s staff and budget doubled and ATI expanded its service area to include 18 Counties throughout the CNY area. ATI launched the provision of Medicaid.

Waiver services, benefits counseling and youth transition services, and it secured its first of several regional contracts to provide assistive technology and environmental modifications for people with developmental and physical disabilities.

In 2014, Chad W. Underwood assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer. Since that time, ATI has generated more than $4 million for the Cortland Community, increased staff to 13, and grown the number of people served annually by 35%. ATI expanded its nursing home transition and diversion programming, launched new programming for long term supports and services and housing assistance, and implemented innovative public relations / community education strategies. In 2016, ATI launched its second five-year strategic plan which aims to address the ever-changing and unmet needs of people with disabilities.

While Access To Independence has do doubt evolved over the past 20 years, its core philosophy has not. ATI remains committed to fighting for the civil rights of people with disabilities, helping people live more independently in the community, and combatting the attitudinal and physical barriers that persist throughout society. More than anything else, ATI has lived-up to this commitment thanks to its rich history of dedicated staff and Board Members, both past and present.