Born legally blind, Jim Whalen said his life parallels the law. “As I grew up so did the law,” said Whalen. “Until about the age of 12, there were no pieces of federal legislation that protected people with disabilities.”
When he was younger, he became connected with the National Library Services for the blind and his material was marked “for the blind and crippled children.” In fact, “I have seen all types of references over the years,” he noted. “It has been an interesting evolution.”
Whalen always knew he had a disability but no adult in his life allowed it to cripple him. “There was always an expectation for me to succeed,” he said. “I attended Catholic school and wasn’t given any special privileges because I was blind. My parents also raised me without accommodations.”
That influenced is what spurred his passion for Independent Living (IL).
Over the years, he has worked in various functions including in state government and at the University setting. “Independent Living is my home and it is where I belong. It incorporates all aspects of community participation,” he said. “Sometimes it is hard to tell that life is more than work.”
Growing up for Whalen meant that—regardless regardless of your challenges—you were to be confident and participate. “Everyone expected me to perform and were engaged in my success,” he said. At school, he was also involved in peer mentoring and was a mentor in math. “I grew up in that Independent Living model,” he said. “It’s been part of my life since the beginning. I was taught those skills by my parents and teachers. It was just sort of a given and that it why it is a big part of my life today.”
Whalen can trace back his involvement in the council to about 40 years ago: “It was then when I had my first real encounter with some real disability advocates who were asking that their rights be respected by the federal government who had created laws they didn't really know how to implement,” he said.
He is currently the director of a center described in the law that created SILCs, and was voted to represent centers on this council. He has also been involved with other SILC council work in Iowa and North Carolina over the past decade and a half.
“The SILC can serve a couple of key functions to the citizens of any state, but I think the most important role we play is promoting and monitoring the services that Centers for Independent Living and our other service providers using public dollars extend to the citizens of the state,” said Whalen. “We are in a legal sense the monitors for the federal government assigned by the governor and it is very important that the services outlined in our state plan get executed.”
It may not sound too flashy but neither is sidewalk grass, noted Whalen. “Sidewalk grass, you ask? Sidewalk grass just keeps showing up doing its job of growing and eventually breaks through concrete to take its place in nature,” he said. “The SILC makes sure the state plan gets done and this plan represents a path to fuller participation for citizens with disabilities. The SILC therefore plays a key role in ultimately making a better state and nation for all.”
As a long-time disabilities advocate, Whalen is proud of SILC’s work. “This is a ‘young’ Council and the laws dictating the actions of SILC have changed slightly,” he said. “I look forward to being part of a team of Council members who have great potential to become a strong, focused group of citizens with disabilities or who understand disability. I look forward to sharing my experiences and I look forward to being a part of the change that is possible.”
Whalen, like many Council members, is advocating for certain issues, including sub-minimum wage and for independent living. “The issue of independent living is probably the best kept secret in the entirety of government and is a great investment for the taxpayer,” he said.