Access Press takes a look back at the year 2023

Recycle those 2023 calendars! It was a year of historic legislative changes, big accomplishments and at times, tough losses. Here is […]

Two people standing outside of the capitol holding signs in support for Disability Pride Month.

Recycle those 2023 calendars! It was a year of historic legislative changes, big accomplishments and at times, tough losses. Here is our annual look back. 

January 2023 

There were high hopes for the 2023 Minnesota Legislature, as disability advocacy groups prepared for session’s start. One highlight was to be more appearances at public hearings, in contrast to the past COVID-19 pandemic years of everything online. 

The Minnesota Council on Disability presented a comprehensive legislative agenda. The annual legislative forum had a twist. Rather than hearing from state lawmakers, attendees heard state council members and self-advocates outlining key issues.  

Affordable and accessible housing, reforms for working people with disabilities, and dealing with the direct care crisis were among issues to be championed during the upcoming session. An array of other asks, on mental health, criminal justice and special education, also came forward. 

The West St. Paul City Council and Dakota County Board approved a new mental health crisis center. Thirty-four people spoke during a council public hearing. A majority of the crowd— roughly four out of five—supported the crisis center, speaking in favor of mental health services. A minority of residents spoke in opposition, citing safety concerns. Dakota County and Guild Services proposed the facility. 

The Minnesota Department of Health added irritable bowel syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder to the list of qualifying medical conditions for participation in Minnesota’s medical cannabis program. 

February 2023 

Stout chains and padlocks on the doors told the story as St. Paul’s downtown skyway tower remained inaccessible. People with disabilities had to trek at least a block away for elevator access, and dealt with limited overnight hours.  

The skyway tower, which was at the center of a high-profile accessibility battle a decade ago, was closed in late December 2022. 

It was a fast start for the 2023 Minnesota Legislature. Typically the first weeks of session are spent on committee organization and informational hearings. Lawmakers took a deep dive into key issues ranging from taxes, legalization of marijuana, paid family leave and abortion rights.  

One big issue was that of Minnesota’s workforce, including the workforce for people with disabilities and elders. Much attention was being paid to the personal care attendant and home care workforce shortage, which became catastrophic and even fatal in some cases. One family testifying on that issue is the family of Dennis “Denny” Prothero. Prothero died after months of inadequate care, which led to amputations and health issues. His family members had to struggle to provide care, without adequate training and support.  

The History Note marked 50 years of Special Olympics, describing an early partnership between young program athletes and professional hockey players. 

March 2023 

It was a raucous and energetic return to the halls of state government. The first big legislative rallies, for Disability Advocacy Week and Disability Services Day, drew huge crowds, in a sign of things to come. 

Groups continued make the case for legislation including measures to better compensate direct support staff and compensate them for driving clients. With the first bill deadline on March 10, there was much activity to get measures through for further action. 

The rallies were like old times as people got together, made signs and caught up. 

One message repeatedly shared is that with a large budget surplus, this is the year to take action on disability requests that have been languishing for years. 

Two longtime disability service organization announced new leadership. Matt Kramer, a veteran executive and government official, took the helm at Vision Loss Resources. He came to the nonprofit from the University of Minnesota. 

Business and nonprofit leader Tonia Teasley was the new chief at PACER Center, Teasley succeeded longtime executive director and PACER cofounder Paula Goldberg, who died in May 2022. Goldberg had led PACER Center since 1977. 

The deaths of former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger and former State Rep. Lee Greenfield were mourned. Both were disability champions. 

Scott Anderson holding a fish

April 2023 

Lifelong Northland resident Scott “Scottie” Anderson was remembered as someone who enjoyed the outdoors, and was eager to share his love of sailing. He was a tireless advocate for Northland area residents with disabilities. He died after a bout with cancer. 

Anderson sustained a spinal cord injury and became a T-5 paraplegic after an accidental gun discharge. He was an early promoter of and participant in adapted sports in northern Minnesota. 

The Minnesota Mental Health Network continued to deliver the message that the state needs to build its mental health system. Many needs for many different constituencies had to be addressed. Children’s mental health, employment accommodations, stable housing, suicide prevention, adequate reimbursements for services and addressing the ongoing workforce shortage were among topics championed at the capitol. The ability to access proper care when it was needed, and break down barriers to care, were also emphasized.  

At the 2023 Mental Health Day on the Hill, advocates gave legislators tiny foam bricks, to indicate the importance of building a quality mental health system. 

Nationally known disability rights advocate Judy Heumann was honored for her pioneering work on an array of disability rights issues, after her death. She was known for her book Being Heumann. 

A group of young doctors showing up for a legislative rally.

May 2023 

All eyes were on a federal class action lawsuit involving Minnesotans with disabilities who live or lived in corporate adult foster care or group homes. The case returned to U.S. District Court in St. Paul on May 12. Before the court proceedings, disability rights activists gathered to protest what they saw as an inadequate proposed settlement. The “Integration Now” rally was meant to draw attention to the settlement, and the need for more to be done to help Minnesotans with disabilities as they seek to integrate into their home communities.  

Minnesotans for Direct Support Improvements raised objections to the case, which had been winding through the courts for several years. 

Light 50 candles and sing “Happy Birthday” to the Minnesota Council on Disability (MCD). The council celebrated its founding in 1973. Countless staff members, volunteer council members and allies have worked under the council’s umbrella on a myriad of issues over the past five decades. The council was one of many initiatives that came out of the groundbreaking 1972 Governor’s Conference on the Handicapped, which was championed by then-Gov. Wendell Anderson. 

Advocates were tracking the end of legislative session, and hoping that 2023 would not be a repeat of the chaos at the 2022 session’s end. 

June 2023 

The federal COVID-19 public health emergency declaration ended, but the disease is still a threat, especially for those with disabilities or compromised immune systems. Changes started to kick in for state and federal programs. 

An extension of a pandemic benefit allowed parents of children under age 18 and spouses to continue serving as personal care assistance (PCA) workers for their family members for another six months.  

The federal government approved the extension until November 11, 2023, and the final human services budget bill signed by Gov. Tim Walz in May included funding for the extension. But timing caused some confusion. 

Advocates celebrated an unprecedented and successful legislative session, with financial and policy gains on numerous fronts. The first state law changes began July 1. 

Vera Gammon, known as Minnesota’s Helen Keller, was recalled in the History Note.

Born in 1898, she was left blind by illness at age four. About two years later, she lost her hearing. Gammon’s life changed when she was placed at what is now the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD) in Faribault. In her first days there, she learned three words. She flourished, became a talented communicator and writer, and developed many skills and interests. 

July 2023 

People with behavioral health disabilities are among whom the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and City of Minneapolis discriminated against. An 89-page report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) described in great detail the longstanding issues of misconduct.  

The DOJ also announced that city and MPD leaders agreed in principle to resolve the issues found through a court-enforceable consent decree with an independent monitor.

This is an option to contested litigation, which could take many years to resolve. 

A settlement in a lengthy federal court case centered on living choices won approval.

While intervenors didn’t get what they sought in the class action case of Murphy versus Harpstead, they used the court case to mobilize on issues and draw new people into self-advocacy. 

At issue was a legal settlement negotiated by the Disability Law Center and the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), and whether that settlement addressed issues raised by the Disability Law Center on behalf of Minnesotans with disabilities who want to live in the least restrictive settings possible. U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank’s ruling concludes that the settlement warrants approval. 

Summer ended the 2022-2023 adapted sports season for Minnesota prep athletes in track and field, bowling and softball. 

Barnett "Bud" Rosenfield on a bridge.

August 2023 

The death of Barnett “Bud” Rosenfield was felt all across Minnesota. Rosenfield, Minnesota’s ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack July 8. He was 57 years old.  

Rosenfield had served as ombudsman since December 2021. He was appointed to the post with a long record of committed service to Minnesotans with disabilities. Before that he had served at the Minnesota Disability Law Center, where he had served as supervising attorney. Tributes poured in. 

Many Minnesota families with disabled children celebrated changes to the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act or TEFRA. 

Medical Assistance (MA) under the TEFRA option allows MA eligibility for children with disabilities in families that have incomes too high to qualify for MA. TEFRA is the federal law that sets the rules for this option.  

TEFRA often covers costs private insurance providers don’t or won’t cover. It is a very beneficial program in some ways, families note. It covers many costs of equipment, home and transportation modifications, equipment, therapies, home and community-based waiver services and much more. But the fees created huge financial issues for many families. 

A fully accessible and private restroom, with changing facilities, was featured at the Minnesota State Fair. 

African American young man with disability putting ballot paper into box

September 2023 

With primary and general elections statewide, voters were being reminded to know their rights under guardianship and conservatorship. Persons under guardianship and conservatorship in Minnesota can vote. This is often misunderstood, by people in those roles, family members of people with disabilities and even election officials.  

Graduates of the 2022-2023 Partners in Policymaking Program looked back on their accomplishments and celebrated completion of their program. The internationally known program has a long history of helping people learn to advocate for themselves and their family members. 

United States Federal District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank was announced as the winner of the 2023 Access Press Charlie Smith Award for 2023.The award is given to Minnesotans who provide outstanding service to people with disabilities. Nominations come from community members. The winner is chosen by the Access Press Board of Directors.  

“Judge Frank’s work has been crucial in matters that affect the daily lives of Minnesotans,” his nomination stated. “He has been fair and thoughtful, and has been able to advance critical needs through his work. He sees the needs of the community and his rulings back that up. Recognition is long overdue for rulings that protect people with disabilities.” 

October 2023 

Debate over use of restraint roiled Minnesota’s schools, law enforcement community and justice system.  

At issue is a new state law that places limits as to how students can be physically restrained. The law change was part of the 2023 education bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz. How the law is interpreted has generated weeks of controversy, with many law enforcement agencies statewide removing student resource officers or SROS from schools. 

In a key win in a 2021 class action lawsuit filed by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center, U.S. District Court Judge Patrick J. Schiltz ruled that special education students are entitled to comprehensive school instruction in an academic year leading up to their 22nd birthday. Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center took up the class action on behalf of students whose special education services were cut short in violation of federal law. Under state law, school districts had ended instruction for special education students on July 1 following their 21st birthday.  

Four out of five Minnesota nonprofit leaders said they ‘re grappling with job vacancies and reported more workforce shortages than peers nationwide, according to a new national survey. That includes nonprofits that serve people with disabilities.  

November 2023 

The wheels turned toward the start of Minnesota’s 2024 legislative session, with bonding requests falling into place. 2024 is a bonding year. The requests take shape many months in advance, with some repeats. 

Many requests would provide accessibility improvements, for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Those include state buildings, colleges and university facilities and state parks. An array of facilities that specifically serve people with disabilities also have requests in. 

Readers were urged to prepare for winter, inside and outside. Information was provided about everything from home heating assistance to keeping sidewalks cleared of snow and ice. People need to learn their local unit of government rules on when walks should be cleared and about available help. 

Robin Harkonen, executive director of the East Range DAC, is the new president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR). 

Red Wing resident Larry Bale was honored by ProAct, Inc., a non-profit providing in-center, virtual and community-based services for individuals with disabilities, Bakle and ProAct celebrated Bale’s 50 years of service. Bale was recognized as part of ProAct’s annual service awards tradition, which celebrates the achievements of participants. Part of the event featured singing by the Red Wing Men’s Chorus, which Bale belongs to. 

December 2023 

A lack of transparency, poor communication and declining enrollment are among concerns that led multiple groups to criticize leadership of Minnesota State Academies for the Blind and Deaf. The issues were accompanied by proposed solutions during a special town hall, during which a gym full of members of the deaf and blind communities expressed grievances to MSA leadership. Deaf academy alumni have been the most vocal about problems, recently sending a letter of no confidence directed to MSAD leadership. 

A new report from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration (ICI) outlined staffing challenges, inadequate wage increases, burnout and depression as part of COVID-19’s legacy among the professionals who support people with disabilities in their daily lives. 

The report showed that direct support professionals (DSPs) worked more overtime hours and took on new duties during the pandemic as many of their colleagues were unable to work. The average hourly wages grew 13 percent, to $16.58, during the April 2020 to July 2022 period. But it wasn’t enough to adequately cover living costs. By 2022, about two-thirds were working additional weekly hours due to the pandemic.  

The Access Press gala and fundraiser returned from its hiatus, with an event at the University of Minnesota McNamara Alumni Center. U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank was honored with the prestigious Charlie Smith Award. Those present also remembered the late Tim Benjamin who led Access Press for more than 20 years.  

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