For those with disabilities, much of the burden is placed on individuals and families in need, or federally-funded institutions whose running costs exceed the monetary - and personal - value of independent living.

But it’s not about the money; it’s about quality of life. Living Independently For Today and Tomorrow (LIFTT) is one of four independent living centers in Montana working to empower those with disabilities.

Tami Hoar, LIFTT’s executive director defines the true cost of institutional care.

“Every choice is made for you in institutional care,” she said. “Dignity and self-care are non-existent.”

Hoar leads the Southeastern Montana chapter of the national organization, aiming to support a large need in the Billings community and beyond. From legislative advocacy to education and peer mentorship, not one need goes unaddressed.

“We are cross-disability,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter if it’s new, temporary, chronic or genetic.”

LIFTT helps those who self-disclose their disability, meaning no medical records are required for services.

Driving self-determination

Montana’s rural landscape can seem daunting for a resident requiring specialized care. That is why LIFTT functions as an “umbrella organization” to connect people to the services they need, even if that means driving across county lines to do so.

Brent Morris, LIFTT peer transitions coordinator, emphasizes that it’s all about “consumer choice.”

“(Consumers) use self-determination to get what they want,” he said.

Whether that’s skills training for employment, assistance in filing a grievance or simply raising disability awareness, LIFTT fosters independent living skills in those who need it most.

Examples include asking city council for complete streets access, assessing ADA compliance at area businesses and teaching health management courses.

Advocates for all ages, LIFTT’s assistance also reaches the classroom.

“They have the right to ask for changes (to their education plan),” Hoar said of local youth living with disabilities. “They have the voice and right to be involved.”

Hoar’s team also educates parents, ensuring children are getting appropriate accommodations in school.

“The parents are the best advocates the youth have,” Morris added.

Morris says federal government funding is currently focusing on youth ages 14 and up, and LIFTT has partnered with the Montana Youth Transitions Program and the Montana Youth Leadership Forum to smooth the transition into adulthood for teens with disabilities.

Future planning

LIFTT’s transition services aim to divert people from institutional care or to transition those already inside institutions out into the community.

Self-advocacy training, job shadowing and life coaching are just three of the transition program’s components promoting independent living.

Teachers and health professionals, in addition to families, are also educated in order to build a network of support for today’s youth.

LIFTT earns its credibility with consumers – children included – by employing persons with disabilities on their team, creating a relatable relationship between the nonprofit agency and those in need.

“A person who has walked in those shoes is the best person to mentor,” Hoar said, referring specifically to LIFTT’s peer mentors.

Rapport is built through shared experiences, but Morris emphasizes peer support differs from counseling.

“We’re a supplement to other services,” explained Hoar. “We fill gaps for those who aren’t qualified for other services elsewhere.”

Aside from personal assistance services which require Medicaid eligibility, LIFTT’s programs are at no cost to consumers.

At its core

LIFTT’s five core services are: information and referral; individual and systems advocacy; skills training; peer mentoring; and transition services.

Counties represented under the Southeastern Montana chapter include Yellowstone, Carbon, Big Horn, Stillwater, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Treasure, Rosebud, Powder River, Carter, Custer, Fallon, Prairie, Garfield, McCone, Richland, Dawson and Wibaux.

Despite their central office being in Billings at 1201 Grand Ave No. 1, a LIFTT-affiliated volunteer represents each county to connect consumers to services.

If a consumer is planning to move outside of the service area, Montana’s network of support eases the transition of care.

Recognized nationally for networking, weekly calls between the state’s independent living centers speak to Montana’s dedication to those with disabilities.

“Not every state covers all counties,” explained Hoar. “And many centers don’t talk. (We) advocate together – united for funding – and all serve massive areas with unique challenges.”

Morris agrees that Montana is leading the way toward excellence in service, and ultimately independent, fulfilling lives.

“Montana has it going for us in that we work together,” he said. “Our voice is being heard in unison.”