Sunday, July 27, 2008

National Forum on Disability Issues

The forum, organized by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and sponsored in part by ASAN and The Autism Acceptance Project, was held at the First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday afternoon, July 26th. Ari Ne'eman, president of ASAN, arrived from Washington DC in the Road to Freedom disability rights bus. Bishop Timothy Clarke greeted the crowd, and Jeff Moyer provided original music. Welcoming speeches were given by Rep. Jon Husted, Ohio Speaker of the House; Tim Harrington of the Ability Center of Greater Toledo; and Andrew Imparato of AAPD.

Robert David Hall, who plays the part of Dr. Albert Robbins, the coroner on the popular television show CSI, spoke about his experiences as an actor with a disability and how hard it was for him to find roles that were not just stereotypes. He is the National Chairman of the Performers with Disabilities Caucus and seeks to bring about greater visibility of the disability community as a political constituency.

News director Mike Thompson of WOSU introduced the forum's moderator, broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff, who is currently working as a senior correspondent and political editor for the PBS program NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. A panel discussion then began, addressing the question of what is at stake for people with disabilities in this year's election.

John Hannah, Vice President of The Arc of Ohio, spoke about the need for better education and self-determination for people with developmental disabilities, calling for representation of self-advocates at the highest levels of policymaking groups and committees. Rebecca Hare, a project coordinator for the National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership, stated that "the American dream is not ADA-compliant yet" and spoke about the failure of many school districts to provide a meaningful education to students with disabilities; all too often, she said, these students receive "special diplomas" without having met state graduation requirements and are rejected by employers as a result. Cynthia Owens of the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities described her son's success in transitioning into the workforce, aided by SSI work incentives, and she advocated for a simpler benefit system that would be easier for recipients to navigate; with regard to the increased number of students with autism spectrum diagnoses, she stated that there should be more training for teachers and more funding for classroom aides. Paul J. Tobin, President and CEO of United Spinal Association, discussed medical care and benefits for injured veterans and the need to hire more adjudicators to clear up the claims backlog.

In response to a question from Judy Woodruff about funding constraints and disability services, the panelists agreed that these services should not be seen simply as a cost; rather, ensuring that all Americans are properly educated and productively integrated into the community would be a significant investment in the future. Mr. Tobin also pointed out that this question would not even be asked if the discussion had to do with services that were necessary for other groups of people.

Mike Strautmanis of the Democratic National Committee stated that exclusion makes everyone's lives poorer. He introduced Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a long-term advocate of disability rights, who appeared as a surrogate for Sen. Barack Obama.

Sen. Harkin, who was the chief sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, suggested that voters should consider not only the presidential candidates themselves but also their potential Supreme Court appointments. In the years since the passing of the ADA, Sen. Harkin explained, its original coverage was greatly constricted by Supreme Court decisions that redefined people as nondisabled—and therefore not protected from discrimination—if they could function effectively with medication or assistive technology. Although Sen. Harkin and others in the Senate are working on amendments to the ADA that will restore the original protections (the ADA Amendments Act already has passed in the House of Representatives), Sen. Harkin stated that an unfriendly Supreme Court made up of conservative activists could once again interpret the legislation to provide less coverage than Congress intended.

Sen. Harkin spoke about the importance of having a full-time advisor for disability issues, as Sen. Obama has pledged to do, in order to ensure that disability issues are not overlooked in making policy decisions.

The Community Choice Act, sponsored by Sen. Harkin and co-sponsored by Sen. Obama, was described as a means of correcting a structural bias in the Medicaid system that has the effect of forcing people into nursing homes and institutions. The CCA will provide funding for personal assistants and other supports and services necessary to allow Medicaid recipients with disabilities to live productively in the community. Sen. Harkin also noted that the CCA will help injured veterans.

Sen. Harkin stated that it is in America's economic interest to enable people with disabilities to live and work in the community and that it is also a moral imperative to do so. He also commented on the lack of accessible housing and proposed that federal housing and mortgage assistance programs should include accessibility requirements.

After a short break with more music, Sen. John McCain appeared by video from Arizona for a question-and-answer segment with Judy Woodruff. He spoke of his support for the Disability Vote Project and stated that he believes the exclusion of people with disabilities from community participation is a loss to America. After mentioning that he was a principal co-sponsor of the ADA, Sen. McCain pledged to support the ADA Amendments Act.

Sen. McCain proposed that the Veterans Administration should focus on providing specialized care for service-related conditions and that veterans should obtain their routine health care elsewhere, with a health insurance card. He suggested reducing excessive spending in other areas of government to make more funds available for veterans' health care.

Briefly discussing an Arizona program that funds home health care, Sen. McCain stated that he generally favors the idea of community choice. In response to a direct question from Judy Woodruff, however, Sen. McCain said that he does not support the Community Choice Act. He indicated that he believes it would be too expensive and the federal government has been spending too much.

Responding to Sen. Harkin's comment that the ADA Amendments Act might end up being eroded by decisions from conservative members of the Supreme Court, as the original ADA had been, Sen. McCain stated that he did not believe the Supreme Court was the problem. Rather, Sen. McCain attributed the judicial narrowing of protections under the ADA to a failure on the part of Congress to write the law in specific enough terms.

Sen. McCain also spoke about bipartisan Social Security reform.

After the question-and-answer session ended, a public service announcement "Get Out The Vote," produced by Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, was shown.

Darren Jernigan, who is a member of the Metro Nashville City Council and the Director of Government Affairs at Permobil, Inc., spoke about how much impact a small number of involved and committed citizens can have in an election. He urged those attending the forum to get out the vote, to volunteer to work on a campaign, and to contribute to a candidate.

Jim Dickson and Andrew Imparato of AAPD also spoke about the importance of the issues in this year's election to the disability community.

ASAN Southwest Ohio would like to thank AAPD, Sen. Obama's campaign, Sen. McCain's campaign, Judy Woodruff, Robert David Hall, and the other forum participants and sponsors for helping to clarify the issues facing the disability community in the upcoming election.

A video of the forum is available from AAPD.

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