Steps to independence

Linda Richman leads the typically busy life of a corporate executive. Eager to get a head start on work, she’s at her desk every day at 6:30 a.m. to enjoy a little quiet time before the phones start to ring at 8.

But by 9, she has started on the meetings, appointments and interviews that keep her occupied throughout the day.

The fact that Richman uses crutches doesn’t slow her down a bit. She keeps a brisk pace as she walks to meetings and appointments in the building where she works. "I walk all over the place," she says cheerfully.

Her disability — due to cerebral palsy since birth — also presented no obstacle to earning a master’s degree at Bryn Mawr College and then holding varied managerial jobs as she climbed the career ladder.

She’s climbed so high that, at 43, the Queen Village resident is the deputy executive director at Liberty Resources, a nonprofit corporation devoted to helping people with disabilities become more self-sufficient.

The Fishtown-based company serves 1,450 clients yearly, including more than 130 from South Philly. All the clients are people with disabilities, as are 65 percent of the staff.

The services and programs include peer counseling, skills training, volunteer opportunities and housing services (the company even has a list of landlords with accessible and affordable housing).

But a major focus is vocational preparation. "Many people who come to us have been isolated and sheltered, and have no experience with the workplace," says Richman, who is director of the vocational program. "So we start with personal empowerment and then move up to vocational skills training."

A major aspect of the program is the Workplace Technology Training Academy, offering a number of courses complete with the newest technology to assist those with disabilities.

The academy was founded in August 1999. It took almost two more years to plan and implement, says Richman, who welcomed the first students in June 2001.

Since then, the academy has been flooded with applicants. Richman supervises the screening process. "It takes 10 hours of counseling to know if someone is a viable candidate," she explains.

She’s currently processing 205 applications. "This shows how eager disabled people are to go to work," says Richman, noting that according to a national statistic, the unemployment rate for the disabled is 70 percent.

She’s doing all she can to change that.

Classes at the academy are small — six students for one instructor, plus a teaching assistant, so there is considerable individual attention.

More importantly, students get to use the most innovative "assistive technology" — devices especially designed to help the disabled use computers effectively.

Striding easily on her crutches, Richman leads the way to a large room with 22 computers and numerous examples of assistive technology.

For instance, there’s a very small computer keyboard for one-handed typing. And track balls and orbit mouses that give better control of the computer mouse for those whose hands aren’t steady. And there’s a special device known as an ACE reader, which makes the computer screen function almost like a flash card, showing just one word at a time. This is extremely helpful for those with visual problems, says Richman.

She also points out the "Magic Wand Keyboard." It’s less than half the size of a normal keyboard, and is especially helpful for people who can only use one hand or have limited reach, such as those who have suffered strokes.

Richman is highly knowledgeable about these devices: She’s the one who helps select and order them.

But the academy stresses other skills and knowledge beyond technology. Richman just finished teaching a seven-week course titled "Employee Rights and Employer Expectations."

She’ll soon teach another course, Basic Business Communication. "Every job I’ve had has been as manager or supervisor," she says. "So I can tell the students the skills they’ll need to succeed with the boss."

The students who have taken these courses have ranged in age from 16 to 70. Their backgrounds are varied. Some have never held a job. Others are experienced workers who acquired a disability and now need retraining for a new career.

"I love the mix of people," says Richman. "We can put someone who knows nothing about the workplace with someone who’s had years of experience, and they interact well."

As director, Richman gets to meet every student. And then she gets to witness the changes in them as they gain skills and confidence.

"You see them blooming like flowers," she says. "You see someone who’s been very limited gradually become more confident and ready to take a job."

Just as rewarding are the examples of those who were experienced workers but became disabled. At the academy, they gain the skills they’ll need to take on new careers.

And as they prepare for the workplace, Richman herself is undoubtedly a role model: a competent executive with a fulfilling career — she’s second in command at Liberty Resources — who happens to have a disability.

As Richman explains it, cerebral palsy impairs the part of the brain that controls balance. It creates spasticity, a constant tightness of muscles. "It makes you feel that your body isn’t quite under your control," she says.

That’s why she needs crutches to walk. And she doesn’t drive, because cerebral palsy also affects the eyes.

Despite these limits, Richman was determined to succeed. After earning her master’s degree in social service at Bryn Mawr College, one of her first jobs was as coordinator for a South Philly-based nonprofit organization, Neighborhood Home Health, which staffed home health aides.

She was 24 at the time. Having grown up and lived in Delaware County until then, she decided to move to South Philly. Twenty years later, she owns a home with her husband, Bruce Richman, in Queen Village.

"We wouldn’t even think of living anywhere else," she says. "We love the South Philly attitude — people are very self-sufficient and tenacious."

And so are the Richmans, who have been married 12 years. They take disability in stride. She’s on crutches, he is blind. That doesn’t stop them from getting around (they use taxis often) and enjoying their favorite Italian restaurants in South Philly. They also enjoy the friendliness of Queen Village. "The people on our street are very friendly, and they just accept who we are," Linda says.

Like his wife, Bruce Richman keeps busy with a career. He is a computer programmer at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia.

And Linda Richman, who has been with Liberty Resources since l990, finds great satisfaction in helping others with disabilities become self-sufficient and succeed in the workplace.

"It used to be that people had low expectations about those with disabilities," she says. "But we don’t want to be treated as special. We want to be integrated into the community fabric. We want to be contributors to society — not takers."

For information on Liberty Resources, 1341 N. Columbus Blvd., call 215-634-2000 ext. 227 or visit the Web site at