Tyler Lasher Morris
Independent Learning Resource Center
Conversation with and photograph by Tiffany Manning
“Do good. Do it well” is one of his favorite phrases. Tyler Lasher Morris was born in Leesburg, Florida, but found himself calling Jacksonville home in 2005 when he entered the Deaf Education program at UNF. Once here, he took a part-time job at the Independent Learning Resource Center (ILRC) distributing phones to the deaf and hard of hearing. ILRC is part of a national network of centers for independent living. They were established as a grassroots effort to fight some of the inequality that people with disabilities face. The centers work from what’s called, the empowerment model, which encourages the innate ability to achieve independence while living with a disability.
You went from humble beginnings, working part-time at the center, to become the executive director eleven years later. It seems that you fell in love with the mission of ILRC right from the start.
I did! Before I moved to Jax, I was working at a place that was similar, so when I heard about it, I went in with the hope of finding a job. It was like this weird stars-aligning kind of thing. Through the years, I have been approached by agencies in the private and public sectors for other opportunities. The thing that made me stick with this agency though was that everyone is invited to have a place at the table. No one is excluded, no matter what disability you have, whether you see it or you don’t, you have a voice and an influence on what the agency does as a community response. The definition of independence for someone with a disability is very unique to them, as it is for each community. Every city has different needs, and because our center is community based we have the luxury of being able to flex to the needs of our clients, which includes about 209,000 people across the Northeast Florida region.
How do you find funding for all this amazing work?
We receive federal, state and local dollars. During Hurricane Irma, we had staff manning shelters, we delivered medical equipment to people in need, we provided a thousand on-call hours for interpreters for the mayor’s office. It’s unfortunate that it sometimes takes such a tremendous event like a hurricane to remind us how fragile life is. And to put us all on an equal playing field. It’s pretty standard that we take for granted the ability to hop into a car and go. For someone who is medically dependent or has mobility challenges, it’s different. There is a process that they have to go through.
The ILRC provides such an important service to our community and you do it so well, so thank you. Do you find yourself going up to DC to petition for the things you need?
We’ve done a lot of advocating at the state level and at the national level. At the state level last year, we took our first group of students with disabilities to advocate for their needs. Heading into our trip, we had about twenty-two appointments scheduled to meet with representatives from the State of Florida. We wanted to take the opportunity to introduce our legislators to the concept of independent living. We had great meetings with all but one. This office wasn’t very receptive. In fact, when they saw that there were two wheelchair users in our group, rather than move the furniture out of the way to accommodate them, they said we had to have the appointment in the hallway. That set the tone for that meeting. In the end, I thanked them for their time and recognized that there is a lot on their plate, but I asked them to please have a moment of awareness on their way home that day: Upon approaching the curb to cross the street, to look at the curb cut at the corner, done so that people in wheelchairs have the same access as they do to get home, and to remember us because the people that are a part of the Centers for Independent Living and our movement made that possible. Locally, we have had great support from Senator Bean and Senator Nelson. They understand the importance of equal access.
October is National Disability Employment awareness month. Part of your role at the center is to help connect disabled people with companies so that they can become more independent. How many people have you placed this year?
This year we have placed around thirty people. But when I say placed, I feel that I need to elaborate: Placing isn’t just someone coming in … we find an opportunity and they fill it. We take the time to dig in and define the person’s goal, wants, needs, and desires. If we take that time up front and find an opportunity that matches their goal, the likelihood for retention goes through the roof. One of our employers that has been great for the disability culture, and has been a top selection of where people with disabilities want to work, is Pitney Bowes. They have a one-hundred percent retention rate, which is huge! Within that pool of people we have placed, we’ve seen promotions and now those employees are providing training for the new people coming in. Businesses oftentimes think that disability comes with a price tag, or that there is an accommodation that needs to happen, but in reality, businesses who hire people with disabilities see higher retention rates and workforce productivity. We provide almost nine hundred vocational services per year to people with disabilities and employment is a huge part of the wheel for independence.
Is there a way that companies locally can come to you and become a part of the pool of consideration?
All we need is a “yes.” They can contact us. When we are talking about disability, we are sometimes talking about candidates that have doctoral degrees. Disability is the only minority group that any of us can join at any time. One in five of us have a disability, and as we age we are more likely to realize it’s so, whether it’s a life circumstance, or the process of aging, or something since birth that you have had as an exceptionality. When an employer says “yes” to us, it increases the diversity in their labor pool. It’s good business. We have a pool of qualified candidates who are looking for opportunity, and we have businesses that are looking for that perfect candidate, so rather than going through stacks of résumés, when they rely on our agency they’re getting a pool of vetted and qualified candidates. We take the time to make sure they know how to interview. That they have a great résumé and great communication skills. We can do disability awareness training for a company’s staff, which is what we did with Pitney Bowes. They invested in the decision. They trained their upper level management on disability best practices and how to be inclusive. They invested in hiring interpreters for their town hall meetings. They invested in a culture that has over twenty people employed by them and they continue the conversation to ask what they can do better.
Once a year, in the spring, you organize a really fun party that serves as a fundraiser. Tell us a little about that.
It’s called the Mystery Trip Suitcase party and guests have the opportunity to be whisked away by limo, boat and ’plane directly from the party to their own private dinner experience and they return at the end of the night as the party is wrapping up. The most exciting part of the event though, is the auctioning off of our wheelchair art. Four or five years ago, I had the idea to do something fun and new to fight the stigma that still exists about people with disabilities through the concept of walking in someone else’s shoes. Working with the Riverside Avondale Preservation Society, we decided to create an event around making community art at the Riverside Arts Market. We lay out a huge canvas and both able-bodied people and people with disabilities are invited to sit in a wheelchair and use the wheels as the paintbrush to make a collaborative art piece. It is the ultimate expression of stepping into someone else’s shoes. It just happens to have wheels.