I was in a bind. It was a Thursday night, around 6 p.m., and I had just wrapped up at the gym. As I rolled through the exit, I saw a text message from my evening attendant: He wasn’t feeling well and said he couldn’t come over to help me into bed. “Can you find someone else? I’m really sorry I can’t make it.” Finding a last-minute replacement would be tough. My roommates were out of town, and there wasn’t much time to call friends and see if any of their attendants were free. Luckily, Berkeley has a backup service that means I’ll never be left solo. “Rest well and no worries,” I replied. “If I can’t find anyone, I’ll just call Easy Does It.”
A Wise Measure
In 1998, the disability community in Berkeley, California, ran a campaign to promote independence. Many others had been in situations just like mine but had nobody to help them out, and they were forced to sleep in their wheelchairs or even call 911. They knew that there was a better way, so they drew one up in the form of the groundbreaking Measure E, which proposed establishing Easy Does It, a backup personal attendant service for Berkeley residents with disabilities for when they just couldn’t fill a shift or needed help unexpectedly. The plan was to fund EDI through a small property tax adjusted for inflation — about $800,000 in today’s dollars.
Blaine Beckwith was one of the founding members of EDI and is currently president of the board. Beckwith moved to Berkeley in 1980 and has spinal muscular atrophy. He uses personal attendants himself. “There were some people in pretty bad situations,” he said. He knew a lot of people who fell out of bed and had to call 911. “If you’re stuck in bed and the paramedics show up and they aren’t trained by way of attendant care, it’s not their fault.” Beckwith was one of the foot soldiers who worked to raise awareness about why the measure was needed. The ballot measure had the support of the police and the fire department, who were overstressed by excess calls when they didn’t quite know what to do.
“People were having to call 911 to help them get out of bed or put them into bed. There was no other choice but to call 911,” says Nikki Brown-Booker, EDI’s acting executive director. That situation is bad for the person with a disability, but it also can take up valuable resources and cost a lot of money. “So actually,” by providing on-call attendant care, “we are helping the city out by not stressing out the 911 system by having a service like this.” This was a big selling point to city council members and others in the original Measure E campaign. The measure passed and quickly became a huge success.
One of a Kind
Today, Easy Does It has expanded and is well-known among people with disabilities in this city. “We currently serve about 300 clients a year on average,” says Brown-Booker. “And Easy Does It not only does emergency attendant care services, but we also do wheelchair repair and emergency transportation services for people who live in the city of Berkeley.” The organization also provides a registry of personal attendants looking for work and is beginning its “supporting independent living” program, where staff help clients directly with finding, hiring and managing personal attendants. It has a $1.2 million budget funded through Measure E and Measure B, which was passed several years later for extra transportation services. “We have four dispatchers, one case manager, three administrative staff including me, five drivers, two repair staff and 15 attendants. We have a total of 28 employees,” she says, explaining there is some overlap on numbers due to staff also working as attendants. It is a relatively large organization, and it is the only one like it nationwide.
The 24-hour backup program is the most widely known, and most widely used, service provided by EDI. A 15-attendant staff works shifts throughout the day and night, and at least two of them are on at any given time. Berkeley residents can call a 24/7 dispatcher and be put in touch with one of the attendants, who can come over for meal prep, transfers, or assorted personal care. Clients pay $14/hour for the help directly to the attendant, and the attendants are paid a smaller wage to be on-call for an 8-hour shift. People use the service in a number of situations: when somebody calls in sick, when they are in between staff and can’t fill a shift, or when one of their attendants goes out of town. I’ve even used it a couple of times when I wanted to stay out late with friends but couldn’t find somebody to come help me out at 1 a.m.
Brown-Booker knows of a client who has a live-in caregiver who just can’t be there 24/7 and needs a break every now and then. “She knows all of the EDI attendants. She knows everybody that comes to her house,” she says. “She’s worked with them at least three or four times. So she feels comfortable with us.” Other clients include students at UC Berkeley who are just getting used to doing attendant management, or even people who had to fire one of their regular attendants. It’s a one-stop shop for backup care.
Portia Lemmons is one of Easy Does It’s clients who has been with them from the beginning. She regularly uses each of their services, including backup attendant care, transportation, wheelchair repair and case management. She receives special attendant funding, which usually requires recipients to go through a supportive living agency and have a facilitator who manages support staff and even doctors’ appointments. Instead, Lemmons has a memorandum of understanding with Easy Does It that allows for some case management: They help find attendants and do fingerprinting and background checks, while she does her own direct attendant management. She explained the level of support she needs to the case manager at EDI, and the case manager helped her find the right attendants for her whole schedule. “Easy Does It allows me to facilitate my own life and Independence,” she says. “It gives me the freedom to live my life the way I want to.
More Than Just Attendant Services
The wheelchair repair and transportation programs are another huge part of EDI. John Benson is the transportation and wheelchair repair guru at EDI. He has built up a whole warehouse of wheelchairs and replacement parts. The warehouse walls are stocked floor-to-ceiling with spare wheels and tires, and there are easily 30 wheelchairs of all stripes sitting on the floor. There’s a wooden loft with a ton of other spare parts.
“This is something we’ve worked hard to have,” he said. “It’s all donated equipment, and there’s been a number of trial and error attempts at how to make this work, but this is a result of about 15 years of me squirreling away nuts and bolts and wires and joysticks.” The warehouse itself has been around for about five months now, operating out of an old city warehouse that was shut down. Wheelchair repair services come in many different forms. The repair staff are often called out on pretty simple issues that take all of 15 minutes to fix but would otherwise leave somebody stranded for half a week until the local wheelchair shop has a schedule opening. During a massive Northern California fire several months ago, EDI worked with the Red Cross to donate parts and spare wheelchairs for the people who lost their equipment, until they get replacement chairs delivered. The service even provides wheelchairs to homeless citizens who otherwise would be left on their own.
Benson says the services save the city money and resources. “If somebody was stuck on the sidewalk, they would typically call the paramedics, the fire department, the police department,” he said. “That cost taxpayers hundreds of dollars for a call like that. Why not send a person who is very familiar with chairs and familiar with disability culture in general, who may actually know the client and show up for $13 and help them back on track. It just saves the taxpayers a lot of money.”
Easy Does It is currently looking to expand to other nearby cities in the San Francisco Bay Area and hopes to work with cities and taxpayers to spread its model as far as possible. They’ve made a massive impact in the lives of people in this major hub of disability community and activism. And with enough work, many more EDIs can sprout up nationwide.