Mary Lopez and the Independence Empowerment Center
By Audrey Harman, Contributing Writer
Growing up as a “military brat,” Dr. Mary Lopez has lived in such countries as Spain, Argentina and Panama. In the midst of her travels, she spent her high school years here in Prince William County, graduating from Woodbridge Senior High School in 1976 before her family moved again, to New Mexico. “I never thought I’d be back in Virginia, let alone Prince William County,” Lopez said.
What brought her back to our neck of the woods, to her current role as executive director of the Independence Empowerment Center, based in Manassas, was just another step in her journey towards helping others.
When Lopez was a senior at Gonzaga University, she suddenly went blind in her right eye. It “scared the heck out of me,” she said, and left her very uncertain as to how she would manage graduate school going from 20/40 vision to 20/400 in her right eye. “Not that it can’t be done,” she added, “but people who grow up blind have diﬀerent abilities than people who suddenly become blind.”
Her abrupt blindness was linked to multiple sclerosis, or MS. What pushed her to carry on was when her sister suggested that Mary move back home so their mother could take care of her. Lopez wanted to remain independent, and she wanted to continue to live out her goals. She then returned to Gonzaga, her vision reappeared, and she got accepted into her dream school, Northwestern University. As Lopez said, “There was no stopping me now.”
Lopez obtained her doctorate in sociology with the support of her peers and professors. While writing her dissertation, “Exercising control in the face of uncertainty: Multiple sclerosis and other chronic illnesses,” she was learning things from other people with MS as well as living the hardship herself. “Every time I talked to other people with MS, I would learn new things to bring up at my doctor’s appointments,” said Lopez. Her graduate work focused on advocating for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities and helping them control such an uncertain experience. She said she never could have completed her dissertation without her father, who acted as her research assistant and did all of the manual labor she could not do herself.
After completing her Ph.D., Lopez went on to work for diﬀerent centers in California and on boards to help people with disabilities ﬁnd their place in the community. She initially worked with getting people out of nursing homes and living independently. In 2005 she learned that the Independence Empowerment Center (IEC) was in need of new leadership. Within a few months she moved back to Prince William to became their new executive director, and has been there ever since.
The IEC’s motto and practice is to “encourage, support, and provide options to people with disabilities.” Located in Manassas next to Prince William Hospital, the IEC works with “people of all kinds of disabilities from newborns to people over 100 years old,” said Lopez. Its “10 Principles of Independent Living” are: civil rights, consumerism, de-institutionalization, de-medicalization, self-help, advocacy, barrier-removal, consumer control, peer role models, and cross-disability.
As Lopez noted, “Everyone knows someone with a disability,” thus everyone knows ﬁrsthand how important it is for people with disabilities to have the assistance they may need to continue to live in the community. Wheelchair access to restaurants, menus available in braille, and interpreters for the hearing impaired in doctor’s oﬃces are just some of the rights for which IEC advocates.
Lopez said that the IEC works with many diﬀerent types of disabilities, even ones considered “invisible.” Though Lopez herself uses a cane, because, as she said, “I wobble, and I don’t want people to think I am inebriated,” and in her case, “the cane explains more than it detracts from who I am,” some people show no outward signs of a disability. The IEC respects everyone’s privacy when they come into the center, and it is up to the consumer how much they want to reveal, for all are treated equally and are advocated for. “We do whatever we can to help our consumers remain independent for [themselves]and in the community,” said Lopez.
A lot of the work for equal rights for people with disabilities was modeled after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA) was passed after a long ﬁght, “both for and against the rights,” said Lopez. The ADA envisions a world just as accessible for people as disabilities as it is for people without them. The ﬁrst center like the IEC was started 40 years ago in Berkeley, California, and the IEC has worked to uphold their same concept of “nothing about us without us.” As Lopez said, [local government]shouldn’t hold a meeting for accessibility without the people they’re making decisions about.”
More than half of the IEC’s own staﬀ and board are people with disabilities. Since they work with so many people from similar backgrounds, they understand each other’s hardships. “No one ever doubts the experiences I have with my disability,” Lopez said. “I deal with a lot of fatigue and the heat only exacerbates my illness. When I do get fatigued, I slur and stutter, but no one in the oﬃce makes fun of me…though I do laugh at myself.”
Several of Lopez’s coworkers verify her upbeat sense of humor and dedication to their center’s cause. Jane Burnette, an IEC employee of 4 years, said that Lopez is a “lovely funny person, very involved in nonproﬁt community work…She always has a blast and is so funny, which is a great attitude to have, especially when dealing with things that are sad.” Twelve-year Prince William County resident Roberta McEachern added, “Mary brought the IEC to the forefront and has been instrumental in getting our name out in the community. Mary is a good boss, and sometimes more laughing goes on in the oﬃce than work, and we do a lot of work! You’ve got to laugh around here.”
Lopez was in the inaugural class (2008) of Leadership Prince William and remains as involved as possible in alumni events. She is always willing to give presentations and her work with the IEC is well received by Social Services. The IEC does encourage the medical community to refer people who may need their help to them, but primarily people seek the IEC’s help. As director, Lopez meets with the Prince William Area Coalition for Human Services monthly, and they support each other in achieving various missions together, such as counseling high school students with disabilities on how they will enter the community once they graduate.
Every July, the IEC hosts an annual ADA Fair. For six years the fair has been held with the purpose to educate the community on their mission and to allow diﬀerent vendors to set up booths and promote their services to those with disabilities. A band has performed annually since the third year, and the Lions Club brings their vision and hearing van. This year’s ADA Fair will take place July 14 at the Harris Pavilion in Manassas. For more information about the event and the IEC in general, visit www.ieccil.org/home.
Lopez advocates for local businesses to know what is expected of them as far as upholding the stipulations of ADA, and also for people with disabilities to become familiar with their rights and to come to the IEC for help. By being extremely committed to the IEC’s philosophy, Lopez is someone in Prince William County who is letting nothing—not even MS—stop her from going places.
Author Audrey Harman has a B.A. in English and Spanish from Hollins University and is currently working toward an M.A. in publications design at the University of Baltimore. She resides with her family in Woodbridge. Harman can be reached by email at email@example.com.