Self-advocates with disabilities, their family members, support staff and other disability advocates are hoping that a crowded state capitol rotunda convinces state officials to support disability services. More than 330 people attended the January 25 Disability Matters Day at the Capitol rally. With massive state budget cuts looming, it was an early mobilizing event in what promises to be a very long and difficult legislative session.
Several attendees addressed the rally crowd to share how disability services make it possible for people with disabilities to live in and contribute to their communities. Betty Peterson, a self-advocate who lives with a brain injury, said she was “extremely inspired” to see so many people. “We need to put a face to our problems,” she said. The message to legislators should be about people, not “those people.”
“We know that independence for people with disabilities costs less than providing services in large institutions,” said Jeff Nachbar, Public Policy Director of the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota. “We also know that Minnesotans overwhelmingly support those services that create greater independence. This day is a chance to remind our legislators of these facts.”
Nachbar fired up the rally crowd with a chant of “Independence — Costs Less! More Fullfilling!” Audience members, some of whom had to watch from the capitol’s second level, waved signs and cheered speakers.
“Without staff members who work with us on a daily basis, most of us wouldn’t be able to hold down our jobs and live independently,” said Rick Cardenas, Co-Director of Advocating Change Together and an advocate with physical disabilities. Cardenas brought a device called the “Wheel of Misfortune,” which he used to quiz legislators and advocates at the rally about the struggles people with disabilities faced in the past and the advances made in recent decades.
Pat Mellenthin, Executive Director of The Arc of Minnesota, said self-advocates need to be part of the solution to the state’s budget crisis, not part of the problem. She and others urged state officials to protect essential services that make daily life possible for people with disabilities.
“Many families we work with have great stories on how to create better lives for themselves at a better value to Minnesota taxpayers,” she said.
State lawmakers also urged the crowd to share their stories when speaking against cuts to services and programs. “It is more important than ever that (legislators) hear from you,” said Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester. “Those personal stories mean a lot.”
Sen. Al DeKruif, Republican-Madison Lake, has a son with disabilities. He relies on personal care attendant (PCA) and home health care services, and works. DeKruif said that while all must share in cuts to balance the state’s budget, state lawmakers “must protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
Rep. Jim Abeler, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, told the crowd he wants budget decisions “to fall as far away from you as possible.” He warned that with a $6.2 billion state deficit, it will be a tough session. But even with the state’s budget challenges, “some of your challenges are never going to go away.”
People with disabilities won’t go away, either said Mellentin. “Don’t be strangers. Come back again and again and again.”
The advocacy day was co-sponsored by Advocating Change Together, Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, People First of Minnesota, Self-Advocates Minnesota, and The Arc of Minnesota.
Mike Gude works for The Arc of Minnesota. Jane McClure is assistant editor of Access Press.