"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"
by Homer Page
The National Council for Independent Living (NCIL) held its annual convention in Washington D.C. on June 12-15. Ten Coloradoans attended. We went to learn and to advocate and to gather some perspective on the state of the disability community as it responds to the current assault on the ADA, the growing federal budget shortfalls, and the post- 9/11 environment.
The Coloradoans visited the entire Colorado Congressional delegation, listened to many of the national leaders in the disability community, and met with Joanne Wilson, Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. We discussed the ADA, MiCassa, Section 8 Housing, reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act, new approaches to employment services, and assistive technology. In what follows I hope to give an account of our collective thought and action.
Coloradoans Patricia Haskell, Diana Martinez, Kim Mueck, Elsa Castillo, Pat O’Day, Debbie Meeks, Nancy Conklin, Tina Kissick, Joe O’Conner, Jim Rowland, and I attended the NCIL conference. The delegation agrees that only with strong advocacy will persons with disabilities achieve genuine freedom.
NCIL prepared a packet of information for each member of Congress. We added the Colorado position paper on reauthorization that was developed at a conference in April (see spring issue of The Colorado Quarterly). NCIL asked us to address five issues.
We asked the members of Congress not to support the legislation that would require providing a property owner notification 90 days in advance of filing a complaint based on the inaccessibility of the business. We argued that businesses have had 12 years of notification and that if a business has a 90-day notification, there will be no incentive to do anything prior to a potential complaint. Continuing progress toward a barrier free environment will be dealt a severe blow if this legislation is enacted.
We asked that $40 million be set aside for Section 8 housing certificates to be used by persons who are transitioning from an institutional setting to an integrated one.
We also requested that funding for assistive technology be continued. This funding assists persons with disabilities get adaptive technology for independent living and employment.
Members of Congress were asked to co-sponsor MiCassa. This legislation will amend the Medicaid Act to remove the bias toward nursing home placement over providing services in an integrated environment. It offers the consumer a real choice. Under MiCassa, funding for long-term services stays with the individual, not with an institution.
Finally, we discussed the upcoming reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act. We expressed our support for greater consumer control, better integration of employment services provided by Vocational Rehabilitation, the Work Force Centers, and Centers for Independent Living, and for additional funding for the CIL’s to carry out their expanded responsibilities.
Joe O’Conner is a job placement specialist with Mental Health Services West. Joe asked that the members contact National Industries for the Severely Handicapped (NISH) and encourage NISH to develop contracts with federal facilities on the Western Slope that would provide opportunities for persons with disabilities.
Meetings with members of Congress and their staff were cordial. They listened and expressed a willingness to study our issues. However, there were few commitments or little encouragement. It is a hard time for progress to be made on issues important to persons with disabilities.
The New York Times reported today that for the third time during this session of the Supreme Court employers have scored a big victory. The Court handed down a decision in the Chevron USA, Inc. v. Mario Echazabal case saying that an employer has a right to deny employment when it might endanger the health of the employee. This case, when combined with the U.S. Airways case and the Toyota decision, continues the erosion of the civil rights of persons with disabilities. The ADA has proven to be very limited in its ability to provide protections for person with disabilities in the area of employment. If employers are reasonably careful, they have nothing to fear from the ADA and persons with disabilities have very little hope of avoiding discrimination.
I spent most of the day on buses and airplanes. Thanks to the ADA and the Air Travelers Access Act, my trip was pleasant and uneventful. There is such a contrast between what is happening in the employment area and the services sector. It seems that society is willing to do things for us, but it is not willing to let us work and be productive. It also seems that we have had a number of cases that have not been good ones to reach the Supreme Court. Bad cases make bad laws. We need good cases.
This is the 20th anniversary of the founding of NCIL. A panel of past presidents reflected on the last two decades. The themes of growth, advocacy, and community threaded through each of their presentations. Current president, Mike Oxford, told the 800 attendees that the future of persons with disabilities depends on the ability of NCIL members to influence the policy makers.
A second panel of national leaders argued for growing involvement of the U.S. disability community in global issues. Lex Friedan, president of Rehabilitation International and a leader in the independent living movement, asked NCIL to support an international convention on disability rights. Judy Human, past Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, spoke of the importance of U.S. involvement in the international disability community. Ms. Human is now an advisor to the World Bank on disability issues.
Taken together, these two panels made a clear statement. Attacks on the ADA by the courts and Congress, the failure of the government to enact legislation that helps free persons with disabilities from institutional settings, and general disregard for the rights of disabled persons, forces U.S. citizens to realize that we in the country are not much more privileged than are persons with disabilities in other parts of the world. Corporations that have led the backlash against persons with disabilities in the U.S. are also involved in attacking the rights of persons with disabilities in other countries. A feeling of solidarity with people around the world seems to be building in the disability community.
The climate of opinion among the leadership is distinctly negative. Their call is for greater political involvement, stronger advocacy, and more creative leadership. These are knowledgeable, politically sophisticated people. Their words must be taken seriously. Can we work in Colorado to make our lives better, even if the national scene is bleak? Certainly, if we can, it will take the same things required at the national level: greater political involvement, stronger advocacy and creative leadership. My hope lies in the strength of persons with disabilities to organize, speak out, and endure.
It was a rainy day and everyone got soaked. We lined up outside our hotel, some 800 strong, and marched to the Capital. Our line, filled with persons having a wide range of disabilities, stretched for blocks along the wet Washington streets. We took pride in our discipline and spirit of unity. The Capital police saluted us and pedestrians along the way called out their support.
We were met at the Capital by a collection of national leaders. Justin Dart, the Martin Luther King of the disability movement, expressed his pessimism over the actions of the Supreme Court, the President, and the conservative leadership in the Congress. He urged the disability community to get involved and vote for persons who will be more supportive of freedom for persons with disabilities. Congressman Jim Langevin from Rhode Island, a man with a spinal cord injury as a result of a shooting accident when he was a teenager, told us to not give up, to work hard with the Congress, to make sure that they understood our message of freedom.
After a number of speeches delivered in the warm summer rain, we broke to continue our meetings with the members of Congress. The Colorado delegation met with Senators Allard and Campbell and Representative McInnis. Senator Allard has been responsive to persons with disabilities. Members of his staff have worked with the Statewide Independent Living Council on reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act and have attended a number of SILC events. However, he has signed on as co-sponsor to the bill that would require 90-day notification to an ADA violator. His staff person who met with us promised to take our other issues to him for his consideration.
We met with a staff person in Senator Campbell’s office. She took careful notes and promised to speak with the Senator about our issues.
Representative McInnis returned to Colorado before our meeting to be on the fire line. We met with a preoccupied staff person who was unaware of the Congressman’s positions or of our issues. He appeared glad to be done with us.
The day began with a drop-in meeting with Rehabilitative Services Administration’s (RSA) Commissioner, Joann Wilson. Ms. Wilson is director of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. She reaffirmed her commitment to consumer directed services. She invited the Colorado SILC and the Grand Junction Center for Independence to present a paper at an RSA conference in August on consumer directed models for providing employment services. We left our meeting with Ms. Wilson and went to meetings with staff members of Representatives Diana DeGette and Tom Tancredo. Representative DeGette is a co-sponsor of MiCassa. Representative Tancredo is a co-sponsor of the anti-ADA bill that requires a 90-day notification before a complaint can be filed.
Dan Koppleman, legislative assistant to Rep. Tancredo, told us that persons representing “the mentally retarded” spoke with him in opposition to MiCassa. They fear that their children who live in institutions will be deinstitutionalized if MiCassa becomes law. We explained that MiCassa only levels the playing field so a person with a disability can have a real choice. He didn’t seem convinced. We told him that it is less expensive to provide services in an integrated setting, so MiCassa will save money.
He said that he would study the issue. Mr. Koppleman told us that the assistive technology funding looks good, he understood the importance of affordable housing for persons wanting to leave an institutional setting, but he did not encourage us to believe that more funding will become available. Mr. Koppleman is intelligent and well informed. We enjoyed talking with him. We hope that he will become an ally.
Later Bob Kofka, an ADAPT national organizer, said “the mentally retarded lobby” has been very active in opposition to MiCassa. He recommended that we not attack them, but rather we continue to explain that MiCassa offers a choice. Mr. Kofka acknowledged that the bill would probably not become law during this term of Congress. However, the work that NCIL members have done has added many new co-sponsors. The number is now about sixty. “Hard work will pay off in the next Congress, or the one following,” he said.
Wade Henderson spoke at the awards luncheon. Mr. Henderson is a civil rights lawyer with a long resume of work on behalf of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities. He encouraged us to get politically active, vote, demand election reform, and look beyond our own group interests so that we can build powerful coalitions with other civil rights groups. While realistic about the current political environment, he is confident that in the future the movement to secure the civil rights of all people will rebound. We were impressed and encouraged by his remarks.
The conference ended with legislative reports from regional coordinators, the NCIL election of officers, and a consideration of resolutions. The legislative experience of others reflected those of our Colorado delegation. The election demonstrated a commitment to the involvement of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds in the NCIL leadership. The resolutions spoke movingly of the work of the New York City Centers for Independent Living in the aftermath of the September 11 attack. They called for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all future emergency preparedness planning.
NCIL can be a vehicle for social change. It already has been. It is clear that the rights of persons with disabilities and their progress toward freedom are now being impeded: yet the spirit of the people is strong and unbroken. We need a well-oiled vehicle for social change. Why not NCIL, and the Centers for Independent Living across the nation, of course in collaboration with the myriad of groups that work on behalf of the disability community.
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Copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corporation