Disability Community Battles City of Minneapolis

For a number of years an employee of the City has provided American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and other duties around alternative forms of communication for the City of Minneapolis Government/leadership, and elected officials. The position has not been used to its fullest capacity, nor has the Communications Director recognized it as a vital part of City Government. To this end the Communications Director has decided to eliminate the position, stating “Much of the money saved by elimination of the sign language position will go to pay for non-English translations of crucial material explaining the city’s core services and how to access them to the fullest.” As our immigrant population grows, so does the need for language translation services. Is she claiming that the City has or is successful in its translation of materials for the deaf/hard of hearing and blind/poor sight communities? What is her definition of “non-English?”

In my view, the City is placing the needs of a set of minority populations above and against the needs of another. We are distinctly aware of the communications gaps for our new immigrant populations. The Disability community did not create the gaps, but we will be made to suffer for someone else’s failings. We have been under the protection of the Civil Rights Act and the American with Disabilities Act for decades, but this does not seem to matter to the City. The City says, “The organization stands by its commitment to maintaining a consistent level of service to the deaf and hard of hearing community. By even our most cautious estimates this can be accomplished with a savings of at least $50,000 annually. But this is not about saving thousands of dollars: it’s about the smartest use of limited resources.” The only thing I see in this statement is saving money, unless I am “blind.” She seemed to have quickly forgotten about the blind/poor sight community in her statement/estimates.

If the City were readily accepting new immigrant populations, one would hope they have minimally budgeted for translation of “materials explaining the City’s core services and how to access them,” and not have to cut one to satisfy another.

The ASL interpreter does much more than translate telephone calls to the city as the Communications Director alludes to that position doing. The ASL Interpreter coordinates ASL services for all city departments, works with and trains police and rescue personnel, assists the City in emergency preparedness concerns, and handles many other tasks. Without this internal position, how will the City accomplish these tasks “with the smartest use of limited resources?”

Every time the mayor, the city council, city council members, the police chief or any other City representative has a public meeting or goes out into the public, they should have an ASL interpreter with them. I believe again, and advocate, if alternative communication was a normal part of everyday business activity in City Government/leadership the ASL position would be in demand and used appropriately. The city plans to provide ASL interpretation through outside contractors. One can imagine, if the City does not value people with disabilities now, what does that say about our future?

People with disabilities as well as all members of other minority cultures and new immigrants should stand in unison against this assault on our Civil Rights. We all pay taxes and have earned the right to be treated fairly and duly respected as human beings with “certain unalienable rights.” If City Government/leadership and elected officials do not believe we are to be respected and that we will hold them accountable, then they have made a huge misstep.

Victory for the Disabled Community

Can it be true, that some of our elected officials get it? Yes, it is! At the last Ways and Means Committee meeting, the committee voted to reinstate in the city budget the Sign Language Interpreter position. It is true that people like you and I can effect positive change in our city. Some of us that represent the disability community contacted our elected officials on the City Council and the Ways and Means Committee especially to voice our concerns with the elimination of the Sign Language Interpreter position. We explained the need for the position, its background, and its positive influence for the city and the residence, as well as the negative impact losing the position would have. I want to personally thank Council-persons Sandra Colvin Roy, Natalie Johnson Lee, and Paul Zerby for their support on this important issue. We achieved one small victory in our continued struggle for a level field of play and work.

With this accomplishment in hand, I continue to be troubled by the real state of acceptance for persons with disabilities to be fully included in employment, leadership, advancement, career and management positions within Minneapolis City Government. The city has a master plan, affirmative action plans, diversity goals, and policies and procedures in place to assist them in having an inclusive environment for all citizens to live and work in. In my decades of experience, anything that is written down is just that—a document on paper, in a book, or in someone’s office somewhere. Unless people put into real practice what they believe is “the right thing to do,” the reality of true equality will never be achieved.

The myths about people with disabilities will never be dispelled, the fear of ignorance and separation will never be overcome, and people with disabilities will continue to struggle. It only takes one person to be a champion of “equal and fair treatment” for others to realize the positive outcomes from having a true environment of acceptance and equality. When the environment changes to one of acceptance, understanding, equality, and commitment to fairness for one group of people, this seems to lead to improved conditions and positive outcomes for everyone.