Disability Day at the Capitol attendees expect respect
A record number of people attended Disability Day at the Capitol in St. Paul last month. About three hundred and sixty people came for presentations at the Minnesota History Center and/or visited their state legislators at the State Capitol. They came from all parts of the state — from Minneapolis to Moorhead, from Redwood Falls to Rochester, from St. Cloud to St. Paul, from Mower County to the North Shore and Iron Range. They were members, staff, and volunteer leaders from The Arc of Minnesota and local chapters of The Arc; members and staff from Advocating Change Together (ACT) and People First of Minnesota; staff from United Cerebral Palsy, Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, and PACER Center; and self-advocates and their staff from providers around the state.
Spending their morning at the Minnesota History Center, participants received a lot of information. After getting the bad news about another difficult state budget situation that faces persons with disabilities and their families, they heard about positive moves as well, including the CAN DO Initiative at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This program is working to implement recommendations from various task forces and committees to help people with disabilities increase their community participation, gain more control over their living situation and their supports, improve their health and safety, and increase their chances for gainful employment. Participants also learned how to be more effective public policy advocates and how to put together their stories for state legislators.
Then came brief presentations and fact sheets on a host of issues: increasing access to housing in the community; reducing parental fees and the waiting list for services; reducing the incidence of disability by reducing children’s exposure to environmental toxins; increasing transportation access; special education; getting ready to vote in the 2008 elections; the Remembering with Dignity campaign to put names on grave markers at state institutions instead of numbers; and reducing head injuries through seat belt use. Thanks should be given to the following presenters for educating participants on these issues: Steve Larson (The Arc of Minnesota), Anne Henry (MN Disability Law Center), Alex Bartolic (DHS), Rick Cardenas and Jim Fasset-Carmen (ACT), Arc Greater Twin Cities advocates Beth Fondell, Barb Kleist, and Scott Schifsky, self-advocates Mike Williams and Heidi Myhre, Erin Zolotukin-Ridgway (parent), Kim Kang (PACER), and Jeff Nachbar (Brain Injury Association of Minnesota).
Most of the participants then marched up the street to the State Capitol steps to join with other members of the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN CCD) to rally against proposed budget cuts. The main messages at the rally — indeed the entire day — were, “Don’t Balance the Budget on the Backs of People with Disabilities” and “Invest in People with Disabilities: Create a Taxpayer.”
Then came the trips to offices of state legislators. Coming from so many parts of the state, participants were able to see a good sampling of government officials — at least 36 state representatives and 25 senators. Those visits included talks with members of key committees and with legislative leaders (or the legislators’ staff), including Senate leaders Larry Pogemiller and David Senjem, Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and House Disability Caucus Chair Shelley Madore.
Hunter Sargent, self-advocate and board member of The Arc Minnesota, was one of the participants who visited with Melissa Parker, Assistant to Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher. “We had a good meeting,” Sargent said. “We talked some about employment and how the unemployment of people with disabilities is so high. I also stressed how the waiver has really helped me live independently — to have staff who can help me with my grocery shopping, doctor appointments, paying my bills, and balancing my checkbook.”
Lee Ann Erickson of The Arc of Minnesota Southwest organized a delegation of 40 people from Southwest Minnesota and reserved a room at the State Capitol to meet with several legislators serving their area, including Rep. Terry Morrell, Rep. Bob Gunther, and Rep. Rod Hamilton. “Weheard encouraging words from some legislators who are supporting the COLA increase,” Erickson said. (COLA stands for Cost of Living Adjustment.)
Erickson also detailed the story of two young ladies who stood up with their moms to speak at this meeting. One from Martin County and the other from Jackson County, the two self-advocates shared their frustration with the lack of waiver funding that limits their services to only a few hours a month and keeps them from moving away from home and becoming more independent. Another self-advocate from Martin County worried that the staff member whom he likes so well may choose to quit working if the COLA is eliminated. He shared stories about funding cutbacks reducing many of the activities that self-advocates can get involved in. Erickson said self-advocates are told frequently, “There’s no staff and no money for that.”
This full day ended with another rally, this time in the Capitol Rotunda, to tape footage for the video “Offense Taken” (being produced by ACT). About 100 self-advocates and their supporters gathered. They brought pieces of paper with offensive words on them — “retarded,” “stupid,” and “idiot,” among others — to a paper shredder. They then took great delight in seeing those sheets destroyed, applauding with gusto whenever a new word was put through the shredder.
All in all, it was a day filled with positive energy and calls for different priorities — priorities that keep the needs of people with disabilities in mind and treat them with greater respect. It is now up to our elected officials to take the participants’ advice to make positive changes in government policy and end the cut-backs to disability services now being threatened.
Mike Gude is Education and Communications Associate at The Arc of Minnesota