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Advocate helps local leaders understand needs of disabled people in Nevada County

Justin Harford, an advocate for disabled issues, talks with FREED's executive director Ana Acton. FREED Center for Independent Living office is located at 2059 Nevada City Highway, Suite 102, Grass Valley.
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

If you regularly attend city council meetings in Nevada County, you’ve probably noticed 26-year-old Justin Harford.

He’s a blind man, and he works for the Freed Independent Living Center as an advocate for people with disabilities. Part of his work involves reminding local leaders to keep people with disabilities in mind when making decisions for this community.

“Particularly we target meetings where there’s going to be an issue relating to disability,” Harford said. “I’ve been showing up a lot more because I’m trying to get more involved in the community; and I’m interested in getting on the planning commission.”



Getting to and from those meetings can be a challenge though. Some meetings run later than public transportation, and once in a while Harford can be spotted feeling his way toward home with a cane. Mostly, he said, he prefers to ask around and find a ride.

“That just tends to be the most practical way to do things,” Harford said.




After a recent League of Women Voters Forum at the Rood Center, Harford said he had no idea how to get home, and it’s a pretty long walk from Nevada City back to his home in Grass Valley. But there was a group of people talking near the exit and he thought, what do I have to lose?

One of those people turned out to be Tina Vernon, the elected treasurer for Nevada County. And county officials are good people to know if you’re in the advocacy business.

“You meet people is the moral of the story; and that’s kind of what my job is about,” Harford said.

Harford’s interest in advocacy started early, looking out for his own needs in early education.

“When I was in junior high my teachers told me that it was fine to take math at my own speed, but I wanted to take it with everybody else,” he said. “I ended up getting what I wanted.”

Harford describes himself as a huge fan of history. He majored in Latin American Histories, and that passion continues to influence his work.

“We’re working on getting a workshop set up for K-12 teachers, particularly high school history teachers, no muss-no fuss disability history, putting it into existing curriculum,” Harford said.

Accessibility is a key word that comes up frequently in conversations about disability. Harford said Grass Valley and Nevada City have done good work improving accessibility when their budgets allow for it, but the historical nature of both towns can be an obstacle.

“The really common refrain is that these were old buildings,” Harford said. “They were built in the 1800s, and it’s hard to make these adaptations work.”

But he does understand that, he said.

“Part of it is defensible because of this historical district idea,” he said. “It would be nice if we started a dialogue about how accessibility can be incorporated in conjunction with historical integrity.”

In his downtime, Harford said he likes to hike. He’s also a member of the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir, and he’s also a regular at the conversational Spanish group meetings.

To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email dbrooksher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.4


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