Nathan Cox: Helping people with disabilities

Nathan Cox grew up in Malone. He moved to Saranac Lake when his husband, Christopher, began working at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment Center. Prior to moving to Saranac Lake, Nathan worked with individuals with disabilities in various capacities, including as a long-term substitute teacher in an early intervention program and as support staff for people with developmental disabilities.

Nathan likes the sense of community in Saranac Lake, but he feels that for those with disabilities, it can be hard to survive here.

“The government-run social services agencies are not easily accessed by those in need in Saranac Lake,” he said. “The Franklin County Department of Social Services is based in Malone. They have an outreach office in Saranac Lake, but not all services are always available in this office. The Essex County Department of Social Services is in Elizabethtown, with no local office for residents at this end of the county. Living here necessitates a vehicle, and some folks on SSI or SSDI cannot afford a car, or are unable to drive. There is lack of public transportation -?specifically an accessible taxi service. Geographic isolation is a hindrance to living here.”

Nathan feels more could be done in Saranac Lake to improve conditions for folks living with a disability.

“Many of our shops and restaurants are still not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he said. “Sidewalks and curb cuts can be difficult to navigate. In winter, parking spots are often filled with snow.”

Nathan also feels access to affordable, accessible housing could be improved. “The high cost of rent, as well as relatively high food prices, can make it hard to survive on an SSI check, even if you’re supplementing that check with paid employment,” he said. “There are few options for affordable housing that is clean, maintained and safe.

“Fortunately, people in the Tri-Lakes are usually very cooperative once they realize that there is an issue. There is a wonderful sense of community here, and most people want to see everyone able to make it into a store or down a sidewalk, have a place to live, and have their needs met. Individuals in our communities are almost always receptive and helpful when they learn that there is a need.”

In 2008, Nathan was hired by the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living as an independent living specialist. He enjoyed working directly with consumers, providing help with independent living skills, offering training, information and referral and advocacy.

“The center helps people navigate the bureaucracy of government agencies when applying for services,” he said. “The various forms can be difficult to complete, especially for individuals with certain conditions. We help people complete forms, explain benefits for which they may qualify, and work with them to get what they need to be as independent as possible.”

Centers for Independent Living, which exist throughout the country, serve everyone with a disability, regardless of age or condition. One of their goals is working for acceptance of those living with disabilities in communities. Much could be gained by disabled individuals if there was less stigma.

“People often shy away from folks with obvious physical disabilities,” he said. “They’re afraid of offending, and thus risk isolating them. There are still people who are afraid of individuals with psychiatric diagnoses, which is ridiculous. There isn’t any more reason to be afraid of such a person than there is to be afraid of anyone else. People with disabilities don’t need to be feared or pitied. They need to be accepted.”

The Centers for Independent Living envision a world in which anyone living with a disabling condition is valued equally and able to participate fully in their communities. To reach this end, CILs promote the rights of folks with disabilities through consumer-driven advocacy.

In September 2010, Nathan became the Tri-Lake CIL’s executive director. He likes the Centers for Independent Living philosophy.

“I have worked with people with disabilities at other organizations, where they are cared for, but not always given choices or encouraged to be as independent as they can be,” he said. “The goal of Independent Living Centers is, through education and advocacy, to put the person in a position where they are in control of their own life and encourage them to be as independent as possible – to take risks, make choices, and to be responsible for their own lives.”

This has become even more important to Nathan since he became the father of two teens with disabilities.

“They’re great kids and we don’t focus on their disabilities, but on their abilities,” he said.

With Nathan at the helm, the TLCIL has increased the number of individuals served each year. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of people served by the TLCIL has doubled every year.

“Last year, we worked with 130 people,” he said. “There is a greater level of recognition from local organizations for the services that we provide. We now have more referrals from agencies and community organizations, but more could always be done to educate people about the services available from the center. I would like to see more people fully understand who we are and what we do, and more people who need our services to receive assistance.”

Nathan would like the center to branch out beyond Saranac Lake, to work with people in other communities like Tupper Lake, Lake Placid and Bloomingdale.

“Our services are available to anyone in the Tri-Lakes region, and we will travel to meet people in Tupper Lake or Lake Placid,” he said. “However, with just four full-time and one part-time staff, we can’t keep office hours in every community. We’re already quite busy most days.”

He is proud of the fact that even though federal funding has diminished, the TLCIL has not had to eliminate services or reduce the number of employees.

“But finding a way to do more with less is a constant challenge,” he said. “We have more consumers coming in each day, and less money to pay our staff.”