Excerpts from Access Press articles from 2006
History happens in small steps. Sometimes we need to take stock of these changes so that we appreciate how far we’ve come—and how far we still need to go.
Federal Cuts to Medicaid Benefits
On December 21, 2005, the United States Senate passed an agreement with the United States House of Representatives in relation to the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. The Act could have significant negative implications for individuals with a disability. The agreement succeeded by a very slim margin: 50 Senators voting “Yes,” 50 voting “No,” and the Vice President casting the deciding “Yes” vote.
Most agree that the Deficit Reduction Act proposal contains several valuable items, including the Family Opportunity Act and the Money Follows the Person Rebalancing Demonstration. However, opponents assert that the benefits of the widely agreed upon portions do not outweigh the cuts to programs depended upon by families and individuals in need. Supporters of the budget agreement stress the immediate need to slow government spending in order to control our nation’s deficit. Nearly all opponents agree federal spending must be controlled, and they support reducing the deficit, but feel spending cuts should not cause harm, or abandon those in need. Furthermore, opponents cite their belief that tax cuts benefiting wealthy families, individuals and corporations will be proposed this spring.
The Death with Dignity Act
First, a little background on the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (ODDA) is in order. The ODDA enables terminally-ill individuals, defined in statute as individuals with a permanent and irreversible condition that is expected to result in death in six months or less, to request a lethal dose of medication for the purposes of ending his or her life in a “humane and dignified manner.”
The statute contains safeguards to ensure that only qualified individuals can receive lethal doses of medication. A second physician must confirm the individual’s terminal diagnosis. If either physician suspects that the individual is suffering from depression or another psychiatric illness, the physician must refer the individual to appropriate counseling. No physician can actually administer the lethal dose of medication.
According to a 2004 annual report from the Oregon Dept of Human Services, approximately 208 individuals have committed physician-assisted suicide since the ODDA’s enactment in 1997.
The issue of physician-assisted suicide is fraught with questions that force us to explore our own beliefs on life and death. The disability community is a diverse one with a range of opinions on the matter, despite the proclamations of some activists. My exploration of the implications of physician-assisted suicide led to a reexamination of my views, but each one of us must grapple with the subject according to the dictates of our own conscience.
Screen Reader Advocates Zero In
In February a grassroots group of blind people filed a class action lawsuit against the Target Corporation. The lawsuit is about alleged problems blind people have with a Web site that is not totally compatible with screen reading programs.
The NFB charges “that Target’s Web site, www.target.com, is inaccessible to the blind, violating the California Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act.” (NFB Web site – Target Corporation Sued for Discrimination Against the Blind, February 7, 2006). But according to the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Bob Ulrich, “Target has always been committed to respecting diversity. Our definition is broad, inclusive and focused on recognizing and appreciating the individuality of every team member, guest and community member. As one of our core values, our commitment to diversity is not something we simply talk about; it is something—we act on…”
The NFB “sued Target Corp. in Alameda County Superior Court claiming that the giant retail chain discriminates because its Web site is inaccessible to blind customers… Target thus excludes the blind from full and equal participation in the growing Internet economy that is increasingly a fundamental part of daily life….”
Disability Community Protests
On Thursday, March 23, 2006, members and allies of the disability community gathered in front of the Ted Mann Concert Hall to protest philosopher Peter Singer. It was the first disability-related protest on campus in over ten years.
Although the focus of Singer’s lecture was on factory farming and vegetarianism, he has been challenged by people with disabilities for his controversial views advocating the right to euthanize babies with severe disabilities and in some cases adults, grounding his work in an understanding of disability as negative and deserving of pity. We protesters did not intend to discourage people from listening to Singer’s lecture; rather, our goal was to show attendees that they cannot glorify Singer’s views on animal ethics, as many in attendance of his talk shows clearly do, without recognizing that this support is for a scholar who is extremely discriminatory against people with disabilities. With over fifty people present, persevering in the cold weather while holding signs with slogans such as “Your Attitude Is Our Only Handicap,” “Everyone Belongs,” and “Disabled Lives Have Value Too,” our message to Peter Singer was clear: his presence in our community is not welcome.
New Hurdles for PCA Approval
In an effort to make the state and federally funded Personal Care Assistant (PCA) program more accountable, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) has implemented a new registration process to track PCAs and home health aides who perform services in the community.
As of April 30th, 2006, approximately 21,000 PCAs will have been assigned a new identification number. As a part of this process, DHS has found over 230 people unfit to be providing services. The reason individuals are denied a PCA identification number is either that they haven’t passed the criminal background check or they have outstanding debts to the government, such as unpaid student loans or back taxes. The Department of Human Services believes that as such people have been removed from the work pool, the integrity of the PCA service program is enhanced.
Local Leader Receives Award
On May 11th, Barb Smith of the Minnesota Work Incentives Connection received the Skip Kruse Memorial Return-to-Work Award for “tireless energy, compassion and vision, demonstrated in promoting the use of Social Security Administration (SSA) employment support programs for people with disabilities.” Barb is only the second non-SSA staff member to receive such an award.
Smith noted, “Skip Kruse possessed the qualities of a great advocate. To be put in the same category with him is a tremendous honor. A driving motivation for me is the experience I have had with people with disabilities in both my personal and professional lives. I am inspired by the many people with disabilities who have triumphed over significant barriers to employment. To accomplish what they have takes courage, persistence, optimism and likely a good sense of humor.”
The Kruse award is a well-deserved recognition of Smith’s local, regional and national leadership on work incentives issues. In 1993, Smith initiated the Minnesota Work Incentives Coalition, which sponsored training on a variety of Social Security, Medical Assistance and other work incentive topics. Smith was also the Coalition’s liaison to the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. She served on the Consortium’s Work Incentives Committee, which promoted legislative changes leading to the creation of Minnesota’s Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD) program.
Voting Machine Gets High Marks
The buzz in the disability community for the upcoming elections is the debut of the AutoMARK voting machine. People with disabilities all over the state are extremely excited to have this ballot marking machine available to enable disabled voters to finally have the opportunity to vote independently and privately. As a ballot marking machine, the AutoMARK performs as sort of an “electronic pen.” The ballot is inserted into the machine, and the voter can choose the candidates by either touching the screen of the machine or using the keypad.
The machine has audio instructions to guide the voter through each race. After voting is completed, the AutoMARK will verify the votes that have been made on the ballot with the voter. After verification, the voter can instruct the AutoMARK to “mark” the ballot by printing it. The ballot is ejected and can then be taken to the ballot counter.
“This is an exciting breakthrough for blind Minnesotans and for other people with disabilities. For the first time, blind people will be able to vote without any assistance from another human being,” said Steve Jacobson, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.
Record Walk for Justice Planned
The social justice movement in Minnesota will get its annual shot in the arm next month, as the Headwaters Walk for Justice takes to the streets for a day of fun and fundraising. In the last decade, the Walk has grown into the largest gathering of progressive organizations in the state. Last year, about 1,500 individuals representing 110 organizations collectively raised more than $212,000. But with registrations already exceeding the 2006 goal of 130 groups, this year’s Walk promises to be the largest yet.
Unlike many fundraising walks that steer pledges toward one organization or a single goal, each group that participates in the Headwaters event benefits from the money they raise. The event targets grassroots nonprofits and small community groups, but organizations of any size working for social justice are invited to participate.
“The walk provides a unique opportunity for the progressive community to come together to celebrate its work, to increase visibility and to raise money for critical issues in our community and state,” says Headwaters Executive Director Steve Newcom. “With the midterm elections this fall, it is particularly important that the grassroots community be visible, vocal and supported.”
Access Denied at U of Houston
Disputes over accommodations for students with disabilities have become commonplace. Institutions, students and lawyers fight over whether students are in fact eligible, what changes they are entitled to and plenty more.
But a lawsuit filed recently against the University of Houston involves a student with an undisputed disability who says he was turned down by a professor, without explanation, for his requests for accommodations. Not only is the suit challenging the treatment of the student, but the litigation is demanding that the university abandon a policy in which professors have wide leeway to decide whether to comply with requests from students with disabilities.
“This policy allows professors complete discretion, and that’s illegal,” said Ernest Saadiq Morris, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project who is handling the case. It’s as if, Morris said, a public university announced that it was going to let individual professors decide whether to follow laws that bar discrimination on the basis of race or gender.
Medicaid . . . Meetings Tap Chord
After a whirlwind tour of Minnesota to educate people with disabilities and their families on state and federal health care policy changes, leading disability advocates are excited by the results they achieved. The August 2006 meetings, one held in each congressional district, also featured personal stories of the effects of Medicaid, and skills training on how to effectively work with state legislators.
“We reached hundreds of families, particularly in rural Minnesota,” said Joel Ulland, cochair of the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD), the coalition of more than 50 statewide disability provider and advocacy organizations that sponsored the Medicaid Town Hall meetings. “People are hungry for this kind of information and eager to know how they can get involved to preserve these critical health services.”
The meetings are part of a broad coalition strategy that is attempting to leverage the strength of the grass-roots efforts of many disability organizations. “The 2007 legislative session will set the state budget for the next two years,” said Ulland. “We need all the help we can get from as many people as possible.”
Coalition Seeks Lost Cemetery
How well do you know the city of Rochester? If you used to live there and have some knowledge of the way things used to be, Remembering With Dignity would like to talk with you. You see, the Rosemont Cemetery, where the earliest residents of the Rochester State Hospital are buried, is completely missing. A plat map exists, showing the location of graves and names of each of the 75 people buried in Rosemont Cemetery. “How could a cemetery be lost?” you ask. We don’t have the answer, but it speaks to the disregard for people with disabilities and neglect of state hospital cemeteries.
Over 12,500 people were buried without a named marker in Minnesota state hospital cemeteries in the last century. Remembering With Dignity (RWD), a coalition of Minnesota disability groups, has so far facilitated the marking of over 2500 of these with proper, named headstones. In May of this year, RWD received a grant from the State of Minnesota to continue their work at state cemeteries in Hastings, Rochester and St. Peter. By August 2007, approximately 1500 more named grave markers will be installed, along with other physical cemetery improvements, such as signage, fencing and landscaping.
A second cemetery connected to the Rochester State Hospital came to life October 1st, when close to 200 people gathered there for a ceremony, organized by the Rochester State Hospital Cemetery Recognition Group and RWD, to recognize the 2019 people buried in numbered graves.
. . . Driver’s Ed Settlement
Heather Breitbach, Amelia Boos, Ashley Antonelli, Craig Roering and Charles Schumacher are all high school students in St. Cloud who are at the age when they want to start driving a car. They are also deaf. When they called private driver’s education schools in the St. Cloud area to sign up for classroom instruction and behind-the-wheel training, they asked the schools to provide a sign language interpreter so that they could fully participate in classes. All of the schools refused to do this. The students and their parents promptly contacted the Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC) for help, which turned out to be the best step they could have taken.
Attorneys from MDLC told the students and parents that the schools were clearly violating the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to provide an interpreter for classes. Both laws require private businesses to provide interpreters when necessary to make their programs fully available to deaf customers. MDLC filed a lawsuit against the schools on behalf of the students; the schools then agreed to settle the case and to provide interpreters for these particular students and for other deaf students who will take driver’s education in the future. The schools will not only provide qualified interpreters for classroom and behind-the-wheel training without charge to the students, but will also notify all customers in promotional brochures and notices posted in schools that interpreters are available.