First Thursday - Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities

First Thursday: DC Gathering

Beginning Sunday, people with developmental disabilities, family members, and advocates from across the country will converge on Washington, DC for the Disability Policy Seminar. This is an opportunity for people to learn more about the national issues that are impacting people with developmental disabilities and then get an opportunity to tell our elected officials to Congress what we want them to do. Support for the ABLE Act and the Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities are two of the major legislative issues. The ABLE Act, or Achieving a Better Life Experience, would create tax-free savings accounts for individuals with disabilities. People could set aside money in tax fee savings accounts to cover expenses such as paying for college, renting or owning a home and buying a modified van. It's kind of hard to save for some of these things when any assets you have impact the supports you need to remain independent and productive.

As GCDD works to expand post-secondary options, families have had to start thinking about how to save for college just like parents of children without disabilities.

The United Nations Convention for the Rights of People of Disabilities has become a very hot political potato. People with disabilities and their advocates argue that this is about helping other nations achieve the promise of their own Americans with Disabilities Act – a no brainer. But this bill to ratify the Convention has already gone down to defeat, as Senators walked past former Senator Bob Dole ( a staunch supporter and former Republican presidential candidate) and voted against it. The opponents claim that people who home school their children would have to adhere to United Nations rules or that "men in blue helmets would be telling us what to do".  It is the paranoia that the United Nations will take over the governance of our great country. Instead, this treaty is about making sure that when people with disabilities travel to other countries they can access buildings and be free from discrimination. All we need is a few more votes. Georgia's own Senators Isackson and Chambliss could be the keys to passing this very important treaty.

While this gathering this week is a great event, I wonder about its power. If only we could find a DAY when everyone connected to disability could gather on Capitol Hill and show our real power. I know of three or four other gatherings that take place.

So I put this to our leaders – find a way to bring disability and developmental disability, mental health, aging and all the cross sections of these people together for one day, one gathering. We would have the one million person disability march/roll on the Capitol demanding closure of all institutions, more job opportunities, better education, passage of the CRPD treaty. How about next year on the 25th anniversary of the ADA? Everyone who loves someone with a disability will gather at the Washington Mall and we will show that we are a powerful group that must be reckoned with. See you there!

Eric Jacobson
GCDD Executive Director

First Thursday: The Importance of the ADA and Your Vote

On August 25, 2014, The Atlanta Journal Constitution published an opinion piece by William Lind. In the article, Mr. Lind opined that the "ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) has proven the single most expensive, least useful mandate ever leveled on public transit. Mr. Lind, who is Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, goes on to say that, "Many of the special facilities ADA demands of transit systems are seldom if ever used. If something intended to serve the disabled is frequently used, including by people who are not disabled but nonetheless find it helpful, I'm all for it. But millions have been spent entirely uselessly."

Mr. Lind obviously does not know people who rely on public transportation to get to work, the doctors or to an Atlanta Braves game. He does not understand that the goal of the ADA is for people with disabilities to have access to the same places and opportunities as others. The physical barriers in our communities are often very difficult to overcome.

Without access to accessible public transit, many people with disabilities would be unable to get to work. People working to improve their and their family's life is the foundation of American society. Yet, for people with disabilities who do not or cannot drive, public transit is the only option to get to work. Does this mean that Mr. Lind would rather have people with disabilities sitting at home and on the public dole? Would that not go against his "conservative" viewpoints?

Like his comments about public transportation, Mr. Lind would like us to ignore people with disabilities in many parts of our communities. He references Andres Duany, the founder of 'new urbanism" and his call for a lean urbanism. Lean urbanism is nothing but calling for the end to regulation in the building industry. Many of us have worked with builders to create volunteer programs that would make homes more accessible and visitable. In Georgia, we tried to develop a volunteer certification program with home builders that recognized homes built with certain accessibility features. This effort resulted in few homes actually being built with these features.

In 2005, because of the advocacy by people like Eleanor Smith, the new urban vision was questioned because many of the homes were not accessible or visitable to people with disabilities. As Ms. Smith wrote, "The contradiction is that, by and large, the homes constructed in these "ideal" communities are neither livable nor visitable by people with mobility impairments-- and not a wise choice for temporarily able-bodied older people, either."

What Mr. Lind does not realize is that the requirements to make things more accessible to people with disabilities makes it more accessible for those of us without disabilities. During the years, when we were working to make homes more accessible, I often told the story of having a double wide stroller to push twins in but how difficult it was to get into homes or through stores. Senator Johnny Isakson would talk about setting a house to an ex-football player who because of his size needed a wider door. Accessibility requirements are not a burden. The same is true of transportation. Raised platforms, LED signs with visual stop announcements and audible stop announcements help all of us and make it easier to determine when trains are coming.

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the historic passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Georgians will join others across the nation in celebrating this important civil rights law passed to end discrimination of people with disabilities in the work place, the movie theater and on public transportation. Mr. Lind's comments reinforces that some people still believe it's about "picking yourself up by the bootstraps" and that prejudice and discrimination doesn't really exist. As we move into an election season and the 25th anniversary celebration I think it is important to ask those who you might vote for where they stand on Mr. Lind's theory. We cannot allow this kind of mentality to prevail in this country.

First Thursday: Time to Show Our Rage and Demand Leadership

In an April 9, 2014 op-ed in The New York Times, Charles Blow wrote about the rage that we should have concerning the current status of many people in the United States. He writes about how, for most families, the cost of living in almost every areas has sky rocketed over the last 20 years and that many people are not earning enough to pay the bills and keep food on the table.

For people with disabilities, these concerns are the same. We should be in rage that too many people with disabilities earn sub-minimum wages and Medicaid Waivers do not cover the cost of all that is needed. We should be in rage that some individuals and families get much more than they need, while others get nothing or barely enough for a family caregiver to be able to work.

We should be in rage that people with disabilities have a 70% unemployment rate and that providers of segregated prevocational and non-work get $17,000, while providers who support people to go to work get barely $10,000. Isn't it time that we put the incentive on what people want and that is to go to work?
We should be in rage that leaders and politicians talk about economic development and growth but fail to include people with disabilities as part of that discussion. All should mean all and people with disabilities should be part of the benefits of a pro-business state and its policies.

However, to achieve these things, Mr. Blow writes, "when will we demand the country we deserve? Reflective of its people, protective of its people, simply of its people? When will the young and the poor and the aggrieved and the forsaken walk abreast to the polls and then to the public squares?"

Again, the same arguments can be made in relation to people with disabilities. Why is it that people with disabilities get the services offered by the provider? The American way is for people to take their dollars and shop for the goods and services they want. We have created a self-direction effort, but too many people are still only able to access what the provider is willing to offer.

As Mr. Blow suggests, if we want to change what is happening and address this rage, it is time for people to go to the polls and vote. To elect those people who are willing to fight the rage and put in place the kinds of policies that are needed to make sure that people with disabilities can go to work and earn a living wage that allows them to purchase goods and services. It is the American way and the last time I checked people with disabilities that live in the United States are Americans and deserve the same opportunities as all other Americans.

It is time to show our rage and demand the kind of leadership, resources and policies necessary for people with disabilities to live independent, productive, included and integrated in communities and self-determine lives.

Eric Jacobson
Executive Director, GCDD

First Thursday: Use Anniversaries to Encourage Change

Mark Johnson always reminds me not to let anniversaries and other dates go by without a reminder and connection to the present. For example, this year marks the 15th anniversary of the Olmstead decision – arguably one of the most important Supreme Court decisions as it relates to people with disabilities. Even today, Georgia is witnessing its impact as the Department of Justice works with the State to close our state-funded institutions. I know there have been problems and not everything has gone as it should have, but it is the right movement for the people who lived there and those at risk of being placed there.

One of the other things Johnson suggested is that we use these anniversaries as a way to encourage change. Click to tweet this!

Can you ask the governor or legislature to reach a benchmark by a certain date? For instance, we should ask Governor Deal to make sure that funding for long term care and supports is at least 50% allocated to home and community based services by the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act?

According to a recent report by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, Georgia currently spends 45.5% of its funds on home and community based services, so a 4.5% increase in one year does not seem that difficult, especially in light of Georgia already closing its public institutions.

Many of the national associations for organizations like GCDD have come together to create a set of goals for United States policy. This comes as next year will mark not only the 25th anniversary of the ADA, but also the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Six by 2015 campaign has established the following goals:

1. Six million working age adults with disabilities will be part of in the American workforce
2. At least six states will elect to implement the Community First Choice Option so that their Medicaid recipients with disabilities have access to long-term services and supports in the community
3. At least six additional states have at least 60 percent of their students with disabilities graduating with a regular high school diploma
4. At least six states commit to supporting successful and outcome-based programs and strategies for high school transition services and closing the labor force participation gaps for youth and young adults with disabilities
5. At least six states commit to including people with disabilities as an explicit target population in all state public health programs
6. At least six states increase by 15 percent the proportion of children ages 0-3 who receive recommended developmental screening

I know these sound ambitious especially in our state where there are so many issues, but I think these may be some goals that we can all get together on and ask our elected officials to make a commitment that by the 20th anniversary of Olmstead, Georgia is a state where we have doubled the number of people with disabilities who are in the workforce; we have implemented the Community First Choice Act, at least 60% of students with disabilities graduate with a regular high school diploma; there are increased programs targeting the health of people with disabilities; and, that 15 percent of children ages 0-3 receive developmental screens.

How about it – are you with me? Can we ask candidates as they run for office if they will work to achieve these goals over the next five years? Let me hear from you.

Eric Jacobson
Executive Director, GCDD

First Thursdays: Join us at Disability Day!

The following is the fourth installment of the GCDD First Thursdays blog series, a monthly blog that will share the thoughts and ideas of GCDD staff members. 

February 20, 2014. Mark this date on your calendar because it is the 16th annual Disability Day at the Georgia State Capitoland you do not want to miss it. We expect over 2,000 people with disabilities, family members, providers, and advocates to attend. We also have a great line up including a keynote address by Governor Nathan Deal and Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi from RespectabilityUSA will be another dynamic keynote speaker.

RespectabilityUSA was formed last July to become a national voice for increasing employment for people with developmental disabilities. They have been working with governors across the country to become Employment First states, which means that employment should be the first option for people with developmental disabilities. Also, Atlanta Legal Aid's Director of the Disability Integration Project Talley Wells will speak about the new "I am Olmstead" campaign that is working to get people to tell their stories. StoryCorps will have a booth inside the Capitol to capture stories from people with disabilities.

And of course, there will be the annual camaraderie of thousands of people from across our state coming together, dressed in the Disability Day at the Capitol T-shirts, waving signs and cheering making this one of the most important aspects of the annual event. The relationships that are built by people who come from the mountains of North Georgia to the southern coasts; from the peanut and cotton farms of south Georgia to the metro Atlanta area come together to say we are all Georgians. We all care about people with disabilities, and we think that our elected officials should make meeting the needs of people with disabilities a priority.

I know you are saying, Eric, I would love to come, but what about the weather? I am not a weatherman but I have looked at several forecasts and most of them have predicted we will have a pretty nice day with temperatures in the upper 50's and at this point, no chance of rain or SNOW. Now I know we just had SNOWJAM 2014, so I will not guarantee anything, but even if the forecast is wrong, you can expect to have a great day!

So, register for Disability Day at the Capitol and I look forward to seeing you on February 20th: Click here to register for Disability Day

Eric Jacobson

Executive Director, GCDD

First Thursdays: Let's Come Together

The following is the sixth installment of the GCDD First Thursdays blog series, a monthly blog that will share the thoughts and ideas of GCDD staff members.

I moved from the Midwest to Georgia in 1987. Not more than a week after I arrived it began to snow. You know, the kind of snow that we get here—just a few flurries, but enough that everyone runs to store and buys every gallon of milk and carton of eggs available? I had moved in with my girlfriend, now my wife of almost 25 years, and I remember her mother calling and pleading with me to pick her daughter up from work. I kept contending that I had just left four feet of snow and this was not snow. I knew how to drive on snow and this would not be a problem.

Fast-forward 27 years, to SNOWJAM 2014. Where were you in either of the snow storms we had this year? My friends from back in the Midwest laughed at the picture of Atlanta shut down by two inches of ice and asked why I was stuck – I grew up driving in this kind of weather. I was in Columbus for a few extra days with others who attended the Georgia Winter Institute. I think one of the incredible things that happens when people are snowed in or can't get home is that real community emerges. We know about the many wonderful stories of how people helped each other when they were stranded in their cars. For those of us in Columbus, we were warm in the hotel but we still managed to create some very wonderful community building opportunities. Throughout those two extra days, people played games, joined each other for lunch or dinner, had wine and conversation with people they did not know. It was really about the community that we all want to live in. Too bad it takes a storm to bring us together.

Why does it take a catastrophe to bring us together? Can you imagine opening your home to strangers when there isn't a storm? Yet, people throughout the area did just that – they sent word through Facebook that if you need a place to stay – my home is open. "I will feed you, keep you warm and when you can get to your car, you can leave. " Already, there have been stories of people brought together by the storm who have had reunions. It shows the very beautiful side of being human. It shows that relationships are what it is all about and the way we build those relationships are through our stories. Can you imagine all the stories and new relationships built out of those few days? We will be telling them for the next 20 years.

I think it is up to each of us to learn this from SNOWJAM 2014 and focus on how we build relationships with others. Take the time to listen to their story and share your own. Sit down in your favorite restaurant or bar and ask the person next to you how they spent those two days. Or just ask them to tell their story. I know it seems awkward, but once you try it you will have a new friend and be able to add to your own story.

In the years when you have grandchildren, you can sit them on your lap and say "Let me tell you about the great snow blizzard of 2014 . . ."

Eric Jacobson

Executive Director, GCDD