Pandemic experience makes a case for open meeting law changes

If the COVID-19 pandemic has had any kind of bright spot, it is in the area of remote work and virtual accommodations. We people with disabilities have fought for such work and community access for many years.

Many of us lost out on opportunities for meaningful work and to be involved in our communities. Our health and disability needs were all too often pushed aside.

The pandemic has shown us that we can fully work and participate virtually. In one media interview, Minnesota Council on Disability Executive Director David Dively cited the irony that people with disabilities are seeing. We were denied individual, virtual accommodations in the past. Suddenly entire corporations and offices made the switch to remote work.

Dively notes that is how our community issues have played out for decades. “For some reason, the framing of it as a disability rights issue automatically makes it a harder thing to achieve, and that shouldn’t be the case,” he said.

We hope remote work options continue as they open doors that many of us have had closed in our faces. But just as important is the right to access and participate in a wide array of government hearings and meetings.

Getting to meetings in-person can be challenging. How many of us have gone into testify, only to find the podium is much higher than a wheelchair or power scooter can accommodate? What if there is no American Sign Language interpretation? What if there is no closed captioning or even an accessible agenda?

The Minnesota Open Meeting Law in some ways creates barriers for people with disabilities to fully participate in local and state government. Virtual meetings and public testimony have been possible due to both improved technology and to open meeting law provisions tied to state of emergency declarations.

But once the emergency declarations are lifted, as has happened in most of Minnesota, we’re back to in-person meetings. Some groups such as library boards or planning groups have continued to allow members to call in or participate via electronic means.

This type of participation, especially for members of the public, needs to be allowed much more broadly. We people with disabilities need to be able to say what having a property tax increase or change in a policy will mean for us. We need to be able to speak out on the same issues our able-bodied neighbors can easily weigh in on.

Many groups are allowing more written testimony, which is greatly appreciated. Some even allow people to call in and testify on an issue before the meeting, then transcribe the call for all to see. We anticipate that level of participation will continue. It is much appreciated.

But it is time to change the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. State lawmakers need to be open to changes which allow full community participation, especially by people who cannot physically get to a meeting.

We need to not be left out of decisions that affect our daily lives. Nor do should we be left out when it comes to seats at the table. We should be able to seek election to office, or to be appointed to boards, commissions and committees at the local and state level.

And we should be able to participate even if we physically cannot get to a meeting location. Our voices should be heard, literally and figuratively. Our input is needed on a wide range of issues.

The Minnesota Human Rights Act and federal Americans with Disability Act (ADA) are very broadly written when the issue of virtual accommodations is considered. They have been all too easily circumvented by employers in work situations. They also don’t provide enough specifics, especially on a statewide basis, for virtual access to meetings.

We’re encouraged that many groups, including the St. Paul City Council, are voluntarily moving to hybrid in-person/virtual meetings. We know that this could be a technology and financial challenge for small city councils, county and town board throughout the state. We also know Internet access is not equitable around the state. That is another issue important to Minnesotans with disabilities and we hope our call for improved meeting access continues to shine a light on that.

We hope someday to see financial assistance to make improved, statewide Internet access a reality.

We need virtual options outside of declared emergencies. We need changes to the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, made for us and with us.

Editor’s note: This is the first of what will be Access Press editorials, prepared by the editor and board of directors.