Around Forest Park, Larry Biondi is well known as a mobile, relentless and outspoken advocate, the guy with cerebral palsy who uses an electric wheelchair and high-tech tools to fight for the rights of individuals with disabilities.
As a veteran staff member at the Progress Center for Independent Living, he utilizes an extended pointer attached to a band on his head to depress the keys on the keyboard of his PC and DynaVox Communication Device (how he speaks, electronically). Sometimes he prefers using a human interpreter, especially when he wants to make eye contact to drive home his point.
Since 2005, an integral part of his job has been working with local municipalities and businesses in suburban Cook County to encourage compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
"People with disabilities have human rights, and money to spend, and we want to spend our money," he says.
For example, at a Western Union on Cumberland Avenue in Norridge, he worked with the owner, and that business now has sloped ground where a big step had been, so people who use wheelchairs can access it.
"A year ago I drove by there, saw [it was fixed] and just said, 'Wow,'" he recalls.
Biondi is the senior employee at the Forest Park site (about 20 years), and when he is not standing up for local people with disabilities, Biondi partners with an organization called ADAPT! to take the fight elsewhere.
"The cherry on the cake for Larry's advocacy is that he has been in jail many times, arrested because of his protesting in Washington D.C., Chicago, Missouri and so many other places," says Horacio Esparza, the Progress Center's first blind, Latino executive director. "We are operated by and for people with disabilities, and over 80 percent of our staff are people with disabilities." Esparza supervises this site and another in Blue Island. "We think people with disabilities should have control of ourselves and of our own lives, and we provide them with the tools and advocacy to do it."
Samuel Knight, the center's community organizer, is one of four individuals on staff with cerebral palsy, and these days he is doing a victory dance.
Last year, Knight, and his swelling contingent of Progress Center activists, teamed with United Power for Action and Justice, and won approval for a 51-unit apartment building at Madison and Grove Avenue in Oak Park (the former Comcast site). Knight says it is expected to break ground this fall.
"We are now involved in trying to create 500 units of affordable, accessible and integrated housing with supports in Cook, Lake, Grundy and Will County, in collaboration with the same groups," he says.
On a similar front last year, Biondi kicked off the Proviso Township Home Modification Program after Progress Center was awarded a $25,000 grant. So far, only eight individuals with disabilities, across 14 suburbs, including Forest Park, have contacted him and received up to $1,500 in assistance to update their inaccessible homes. He wants that number to grow.
"I have been in this fight for people with disabilities my entire life," Biondi says. "We want to get and keep people with disabilities out of nursing homes and help them live and work in the community. The Home Modification Program pushes forward that goal because if you are a person with a disability, you don't have to consider going into a nursing home if at your residence you have that ramp, lower light switches, and those bars in your bathroom that keep it accessible."