The ARC and a plethora of other organizations centered on the rights and care of persons with disabilities hosted their annual Disability Policy Seminar held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C. from April 23rd to the 25th. Advocates, families, friends and professionals all over the United States traveled to participate in this crucial event in order to better understand the possible effects current public policy will have on our loved ones and persons we render support to. On the morning of April 21st, Sid, Gary, Gillian, Faith, Terrance, Mark and Norma departed from the CAU office to make our journey down to Washington D.C. so we could register, settle in and meet with Mr. Blanchard for a wonderful dinner before the conference began. The following morning, our group set out for the Grand Hyatt Hotel at 8:00 am so we could attend the initial networking breakfast. Shortly after breakfast, our group spilt up into two as some of us attended the ‘Introduction to Legislative Advocacy 101’ session while the others attended ‘Voter Engagement: We’ve Got the Power’. The concurrent morning sessions provided sufficient explanations in regards to what it means to be an advocate, along with specific etiquette to utilize when speaking with elected officials transcending into what issues advocates may face when trying to help others vote. Gary explained that one major challenge persons with disabilities have at the voting booths is that they are not always granted assistance when inside the machine- another infringement upon their rights.
After a short break, our group reconvened for the opening plenary ‘Progress in Community Integration’, which essentially outlined how far the disability community has come since the initiation of the Olmstead decision, now in it’s 10th year, and the successes of the American Disabilities Act. This session reaffirmed the fact that fiscal excuses are not valid for violating the ADA moving forward as the United States government can save money by letting people integrate into the community.
After spending a leisurely lunch at a local sushi restaurant down the street from the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Faith, Norma, Gillian, Sid, Gary, Terrance and Mark returned to the conference to meet up with Mr. Blanchard. The remainder of the afternoon began with a brief overview of ‘Hot Topics in 2012’ in the public policy arena as it relates to persons with disabilities. Each participant was given a PowerPoint print out of all the slides featured in this particular session so everyone could use this item to refer to in the future as the primary and election near. Everyone in our group agreed that this was a useful resource for advocates and felt that it efficiently broke down all of the issues into concise, clear points.
This overview set the frame for the following session, ‘Defending the Lifeline: Medicaid, Social Security, and Community Living’ as it hit on some of the most grave concerns of advocates in regards to the viability of Medicaid and SSI. Many advocates and their supporters are very worried of the deep cuts that the Ryan block grant would produce if passed, and the disability community would have to face a fundamental change in the system, along with waiting lists and cap enrollment. Furthermore, if the SSI program is not preserved, this will cause irreparable harm to adults and children with disabilities as these people rely on SSI as 90% or more of their income, while considering the fact that the unemployment rate is twice as high among this community. Our busy day ended with the concluding session, ‘News Briefs from the Administration’. This session consisted of updates from two officials from the Department of Health and Human Services along with a council member from the National Council on Disability. While it is a given why people such as the ones described would be invited to speak at this seminar, our group agreed that it did not provide any information or thought provoking statements/questions that we have not already heard from various news sources.
The following day, Doienne joined us on Tuesday, April 24th for another full schedule of informative lectures and workshops. The first session presented was on ‘Education and Employment Policy’ and its impact on the disability community. The education session called for the national policy to be held to a higher standard that would focus on closing the learning gap for students with disabilities. In order to close the achievement gap, teachers would need to tailor their instructions to meet the needs of every student; while providing an education that prepares students for college and career transition. Sid and Gary both emphasized the need of all students receiving a quality education regardless of their differences.
The latter part of the session focused on employment policies and issues affecting individuals with disabilities. A shocking statistic revealed that the current unemployment rate for disabled persons is 70% higher in comparison to 20% for the non disabled. In addressing the unemployment/underemployment crisis, the President issued an Executive Order calling the Federal Government to hire 100,000 people with disabilities by 2015. Since this initiative, 10,000 people have entered the workforce. Another policy focusing on hiring within the private sector is the Employment First Initiative, which pushes for businesses to adopt strategies that promote integrated employment. Furthermore, this policy calls for business leaders to engage with the private sector to make hiring people with disabilities a priority. Sid and Gary shared their own personal experiences on how initiatives to hire disabled persons, is vital in promoting independent living and self-sufficiency. However, they both emphasized employers should offer jobs that are accommodating; provides meaningful work and pays fair wages to people living with disabilities. Overall, they expressed that the session’s topics provided the audience with very useful information.
After a short break, some of the group members and Mr. Blanchard attended the ‘Holding the Line on Disability Funding’ session. This session discussed the appropriations process and Congress’ plan to cut spending for programs, in replace of a more reasonable deficit reduction package. Panelists from the House and Senate Appropriation Committees spoke about the 2013 fiscal year caps that were being placed on discretionary programs, and how $800 billion is planned to be cut from these programs over a ten-year period. The discretionary programs’ cuts would largely affect low income populations and the disability community. One of the speakers emphasized the importance of disability advocates taking congressional action by telling Congress the importance of these programs and warning members of the harm that could occur during a gridlock. Both Sid and Gary spoke on the crucial role disability programs play in their everyday lives and others living with disabilities.
A ‘White House Update’ was provided by Kareem Dale, the first Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy, highlighting the Administration’s achievements and their goals in integrating Americans living with disabilities into society. Topics discussed included health care, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), employment opportunities, expanding education, protecting Civil Rights, and the President’s FY 2012 budget plan for people living with disabilities. Sid Katz asked Mr. Dale if the Administration had received his letter requesting himself as keynote speaker for the 2012 National Democratic Convention. Mr. Dale told Sid that he could not discuss this matter with him because it would breach campaign regulations. Although, Sid thought Kareem’s presentation was good he was left disappointed that his question was unanswered.
The session to follow, ‘Shaping our Messages: What Works’ was a presentation on a research study with the aim to identify messages that would neutralize attacks and build support for safety net programs in opposition to members who favor funding cuts to government programs, such as SSI and Food Stamps. Results of the study revealed that the focus group (middle-class income, White) supported both conservative and progressive policies on the issue of cutting program funding. Overall, the group was indifferent to the presentation; felt that the power point was too long with not enough audience engagement. Some audience members expressed that the researcher’s suggestion for advocates to use empathetic messages when attempting to convince conservative members about the importance of program funding, would be ineffective due to the existence of bi-partisanship.
In the final session, ‘Advocating in the New Budget Reality’ discussed the challenges and threats with the nation’s long term budget; as well as the major policy fights that are possible in the “lame duck” session. The speaker addressed the implications of the budget resolution proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), to block-grant the Medicaid program and cut spending for non-discretionary programs. Programs that Americans care about could be greatly affected as a result of disinvestment in federal programs. As health care spending continues to grow, Medicare and Medicaid will need to be more cost effective. Policy makers should reject proposals that want to radically restructure Medicare as it is not necessary. The speaker also suggested that a deficit reduction agreement must be balanced between spending cuts and significant new revenues. Moreover, Bush tax cuts should not be extended for Americans earning an income over $250,000 to ensure a balanced deficit reduction plan. If the House and Senate do not reconcile these cuts, they will have to deal with them during the “lame duck” session which provides little hope for resolution due to major policy fights. Sid and Gary agreed that this session was informative and was explained to the audience very well. They also expressed that the future budget threats is vital information that needs to be shared and addressed to individuals with disabilities.
Overall, we believe that the National Disability Policy Seminar provides pertinent information for advocates, their supporters, and the community at large. The biggest complaint of this seminar was the fact that the disabled community is not fairly represented in Washington. However, to achieve a means to an end we need to have more advocates attend these conferences in order to contribute to the greater social movement that is strong enough to affect the socio-political context.