Public Policy for the People: Making a Difference Magazine Spring 2020
PUBLIC POLICY FOR THE PEOPLE: 2020 Legislative Session Recap
by Charlie Miller, GCDD Legislative Advocacy Director
This has been one of the most interesting legislative sessions we have seen in modern times. Between Governor Brian Kemp’s first installment of recommended budget cuts and the threat of COVID-19, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) has been responding through strong advocacy that empowers our community.
As you may know, this year’s session got cut short due to the spread of the coronavirus and also because of the pause in session for budget negotiations. When the session began, we already knew the governor’s recommended budget cuts were coming, as all state agencies and state-funded entities were asked to cut their spending.
From Medicaid waiver funding, to organ transplants for people with disabilities, to employment, many things were at risk for the disability community. But Georgia’s disability advocates were strong and spoke with one voice.
Here at GCDD, we believe in public policies that aim to advance the well-being of all Georgians with developmental disabilities, their families and all who love them. We do this by supporting and advancing policies that create and maintain true community inclusion.
Below we list each of GCDD’s 2020 Advocacy Days, as well as various legislative highlights, under five different sections: state budget, health and wellness, employment, education and transportation.
Coming into this legislative session, we anticipated several interesting budgetary developments. Governor Kemp outlined in his State of the State address in January 2020 that he was looking to cut all state agencies’ budgets by four percent this year and six percent next year in order to accommodate a pay raise for teachers, which would cost the state $350 million.
After reviewing the governor’s recommendations, GCDD was surprised to see they included no new waivers for home and community-based services (HCBS). This greatly impacts the disability community because, over the last 10 years, the governor’s office has always recommended funding for new waivers – often as many as 125 slots per year.
In response, GCDD organized an Advocacy Day focused on HCBS funding. As part of that initiative, the Council recommended at least 100 new waivers be added to this year’s budget to address the 6,000+ person waiting list in Georgia. We know these waivers are vital to helping people with disabilities live in their own communities and have real jobs and get the support they need to lead fulfilling lives. GCDD also worked with advocates around the state to prepare legislative testimony.
As a result, advocates educated and informed their lawmakers to include 100 new waivers in the House budget. And we are looking forward to advocating for more as soon as the session resumes and ensuring the budget improvements make it through the Senate!
HEALTH & WELLNESS
Prior to 2020, Georgians with disabilities could be organ donors, but hospitals and donation organizations were legally able to deny people with disabilities the right to receive an organ transplant, based solely on that person’s disability.
Spearheaded by the Nobles family from White County, Gracie’s Law is named after David and Erin Nobles’ daughter and would eradicate legal organ transplant discrimination based on disability status. Together GCDD, The Arc Georgia and the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta worked alongside advocates across the state to educate legislators about this important issue. In fact, GCDD’s first 2020 Advocacy Day focused on organ transplant discrimination and Gracie’s Law, also known as House Bill 842.
Gracie’s Law was introduced in the Georgia State House of Representatives by Rep. Rick Williams, who serves as the Nobles’ representative. The bill flew through the House with a unanimous vote of 160-0. The last day of session, before COVID-19 mandated a break in the legislature, Gracie’s Law was assigned to the Health and Human Services Committee in the Georgia State Senate and is waiting to be called for a vote. We are waiting for the session to reconvene so we can pass it out of the Senate and to the governor’s office.
For the past few years, Georgia has been considered one of the top states in which to do business. But sadly, the disability community in Georgia has been left out of the prosperity these businesses promise our state. While people without disabilities are employed at a rate of 73%, Georgians with disabilities are only employed at a rate of 34%. This means that while the majority of people with disabilities report that they want to work, unemployment for people with disabilities hovers between 65% and 70% nationally.1
The disability community has been garnering support from both the House and Senate around this issue, as we believe all people with disabilities have the right to go to work and get paid competitively. To further this support, one of our 2020 Advocacy Days was centered around creating a resolution in the House to put pressure on the Employment First Council, which was formed when Employment First officially became law in 2018. This entity is supposed to help guide the General Assembly on how to ensure Georgia becomes a state that truly implements “employment first” practices, including funding employment supports before and instead of segregated services.
The resolution would compel the Employment First Council to fulfill its mandate and hold public hearings that inform recommendations to the General Assembly regarding how to implement best practices, including how to eliminate the use of subminimum wages across the state. As of now, the plan for a resolution is on hold as the session has yet to reconvene.
On the education front, the governor’s proposed cuts impacted the budget allocation for inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) programs in Georgia. Since some funding for IPSE is allocated as a line item in the state budget, it is subject to the governor’s budget cuts this year and next.
To address these concerns, GCDD worked with the Office of Planning and Budget to find a way to cover the cut this time. But legislators need to understand how impactful IPSE is to the disability community. To help show the impact to legislators, students, staff and supporters from all nine IPSE programs in Georgia joined GCDD at its IPSE Advocacy Day. Over 150 students, parents, professors and community advocates came to the Capitol to educate and inform lawmakers about the importance of post-secondary education for students with disabilities.
In addition to IPSE, Senate Bill 386 was introduced – but not without some concerning issues. This bill would expand the Special Needs Scholarship, which allows students to transfer to a private school in hopes that school can provide different supports. Specifically, it would expand access to the Special Needs Scholarship to students who have a 504 plan. A 504 plan is a plan developed to ensure that a student who has a disability is receiving the right supports and services needed to make them successful in school.
GCDD was concerned about certain aspects of the bill, namely the rights parents and students using the scholarship would be asked to relinquish. Families using the scholarship would lose their rights, provided under Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. These rights serve to protect against discrimination against a student with a disability. Essentially, this would allow discrimination and bullying based on disability.
The bill was voted favorably out of committee and passed in the Senate with a vote of 33-22. The Senate made some changes to the bill but did not correct the concerning language about relinquishment of rights. Fortunately, GCDD remained in close communication with the bill author and sponsors, who assured us that changes would be made to the bill while in the House. With the suspension of the session, no legislation can be voted into law until our senators and representatives return after the pandemic.
Just like all people, Georgians with disabilities use many different modes of transportation – from planes to trains to automobiles. In addition to these common modes of transportation, there are several other mechanisms that provide mobility, like elevators, that many of us may take for granted. Unfortunately, elevators are often broken, closed for repairs or otherwise inoperable, especially in high-use areas like public transit stations.
According to the laws in Georgia, all elevators should be inspected every six months. But a new bill coming out of the Senate is looking to change that. Senate Bill 377, authored by Senator Burt Jones from Jackson, GA, aims to change mandatory elevator inspections to only every 12 months. GCDD researched other states and found that many states only inspect elevators every 12 months.
However, we wanted to use this opportunity to make necessary improvements to the way our elevators are maintained in Georgia. We know that many of our advocates rely on elevators to get around, and we also know firsthand how frustrating broken elevators can be. We worked with members of the state Senate to include language that organizations can be fined if their elevators break often.
Although the session is currently suspended due to COVID-19, the public policy department at GCDD is working around the clock to make sure that the needs of our community are identified and addressed. We are actively monitoring any news regarding when the session might restart and will make sure you all are in-the-know!
GCDD is standing by for the state legislature to reconvene for a special session, as is mandated by Georgia’s state constitution.
In the meantime, advocates can continue meeting with their legislators in their communities – especially since this is an election year. Policymakers should hear from the people they serve as frequently as possible. You don’t need the legislature to be in session to advocate, so now is the time to write to, speak with and meet your elected officials about the issues important to you.
For resources and additional information related to COVID-19, please visit GCDD’s resource page. If, like me, you prefer your legislative updates in video format, check out our 2020 Legislative Recap Video!
1 Winsor, J., Timmons, J., Butterworth, J., Migliore, A., Domin, D., Zalewska, A., & Shepard, J. (2018). StateData: The national report on employment services and outcomes.
The Disability Vote Counts 2020 – It’s Election Season!
It’s election season again! In November, millions of Americans will head to the polls to vote in the 2020 Presidential and General Election taking place on November 3. Like all elections this year’s is important, and it is even more important for people with disabilities to head to the polls to make their voices heard.
In a primary election, registered voters may participate in choosing the candidate for the party's nomination by voting through secret ballot, as in a general election.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Georgia primary was postponed to June 9, 2020. With many shelter-in-place orders in effect, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that all ballots will be mailed to registered voters.
While early voting was already underway, the primary election will feature the presidential candidates and the local and legislative primary races. The early voting for the June 9 primary will begin on May 18, 2020.
The candidates who are selected by voters will be on the ballot for the November General Election.
Find out who is seeking election/re-election in Georgia.
Who is up for election?
- 14 Georgia representatives in the US House of Representatives
- 2 Senators in the US Senate
Also, many state senators and representatives, commissioners, judges, councilpersons and other regional and local seats impact how people with disabilities work, live and play in their communities.
MAKE YOUR VOTE COUNT
Did You . . . move, change your name or have any changes in the last one year? Make sure your information is up-to-date and current on the Secretary of State’s website.
REGISTER TO VOTE BY MAY 11 to vote in the rescheduled June 9 primary. All ballots will be mailed to registered voters due to COVID-19
Dates to Remember
May 11 – Deadline to register to vote in June 9 Primary
May 18 – Early voting begins
June 9 – Presidential Preference Primary, General Primary Election, Nonpartisan General Election and Special Election
October 5 – Deadline to register to vote in November General Election
November 3 – General Election
Dates subject to change due to COVID-19
The Accessibility of the New Voting Machines
by Mary Welch
From the initial fact-finding process to the end result, leaders in the disability community are giving a big thumbs-down to the new Georgia voting booths as election season is here. While the Georgia primary election has been rescheduled to June 9 due to the COVID-19 outbreak; and the Secretary of State (SOS) will be mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters for the primary; the accessibility of the new machines will be an important factor in the general elections.
Not having the best, most accessible machines creates problems.
“There could be an effect on the actual vote count if votes are unconfirmed, or worse, inaccurate,” says Cheri Mitchell, an advocate for the Georgia Advocacy Office. “Aside from the impact on votes, however, voters with disabilities may start staying home instead of voting.”
Not only will their votes be marginalized or excluded, Georgia could slip further behind in terms of accessibility, threatening the participation of voters with disabilities in the future.
“There is no single definition of voter suppression, per se, but we can extrapolate the meaning of the term by looking at examples such as voter roll purges, ID requirements, restricting access to absentee voting and voter registration restrictions,” adds Mitchell.
All of these examples have the effect of making voting more difficult, and Georgia’s new voting machines will certainly do that for some. It may be unclear what the intention was in selecting the specific machines or not including certain accessibility features that would make the machines useable by all voters. Regardless, the impact is the same: the new machines will make it more difficult for people with disabilities to vote in Georgia.
The voting machines of yesteryear were challenging. “There had to be a better way,” said Robert Smith, president of the Decatur chapter of the National Federation for the Blind (NFB).
“The SOS’ office has a legitimate interest in making sure that the voting machines are secure, and protecting that interest means that Georgia is using these new machines. However, disability rights are no less important than voting security, and we have to be careful to avoid assuming that we can’t have both. We can and we must,” says Mitchell.
Voters with motor impairments or significant vision impairments are unlikely to be able to use the new voting machines independently.
Then-SOS Cathy Cox agreed and ordered new machines that were more sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities. “When Cathy Cox was in office, the blind said that we wanted to have a say, and we did,” said Smith.
Still there were issues, mostly over validation and technology. Governor Brian Kemp wanted new machines. “The office has made a big effort to try to make the voting as accessible as possible to people with any disability and have the voting be the same as everyone else,” says Walter Jones, communications manager for the SOS. “We went through a whole process and even had roundtable discussions with various disability organizations.”
At that meeting were senior members of current SOS Brad Raffensperger’s staff, including State Elections Director Chris Harvey, who said his mother also was a person with disabilities. “This is personal for me that we get out and serve people with differing abilities,” he said.
One of the sticking points is that Raffensperger brought them much later into the decision-making than Cox.
“We recommended the machines that Maryland uses, and they didn’t choose those,” says Dorothy Griffin, president of the NFB in Georgia. “It’s not an improvement. I liked the older machines better.”
Instructions on using the new machines are “very clear,” but Jimmy Peterson, executive director of the Georgia Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, added that he wished, “all the amendments were in the [American Sign Language] version instead of the English version.” The new machines are almost the same as the old, except to print the ballot to vote.
So, what’s the problem?
A big negative is check-in privacy. Poll workers can scan identification cards, but not a person’s party affiliation, so it must be given to the worker. “That’s not privacy,” says Griffin.
Technology is another issue. “Using the headset is a bit confusing, and it repeats the instructions over and over again. It drives you a little batty,” says Griffin. Many, especially seniors, may not be comfortable with technology. Those with poor hand coordination could also be impacted, she adds.
Smith also questions whether poll workers might not be properly trained. “Is there enough training so the poll workers will know what to do right away if a person who is blind or visually impaired comes in?”
Jones says there is training as well as a video helping poll workers respect and aid people with disabilities.
There also are issues with validation. With the new system, a person will be given a paper copy of their ballot to ensure that it is correct and submitted. Of course, for anyone who can’t see, being given a piece of paper to read is a wasted effort. Bringing smartphones, other artificial intelligence devices or magnifying glasses are a “Band-Aid,” says Gaylon Tootle, an independent living advocate and vice president of the NFB in Augusta.
Both Griffin and Smith want a scanner that, when you insert the ballot, will verbally read the vote so the person can approve. Smith says the state claims scanners are too expensive. “If I can’t read my ballot, a scanner is the next best thing. It puts us on equal footing. I want a paper trail as well as it being electronically recorded.”
By law, no one is allowed to bring smartphones with them into the voting booth. However, the voter election board held hearings to change that regulation.
In response, the SOS’ office will now allow voters with disabilities to verify their printed ballots before casting them. The system allows voters to make their choices on a touchscreen device and then print their ballot for review before casting.
According to a press release from the SOS’ website, “the new system has the ability to adapt to various accessibility needs, from larger type fonts and altered contrast to audio instructions and sip-and-puff manipulation.”
It is every citizen’s right to vote.
“The people who are elected make decisions about equality, programs and services. We need equality, programs and services for all! That means ALL need to vote,” said Mitchell. “Not only is it every person’s right to vote, every person has the right to vote privately in Georgia. If you are a person with a disability, your ability to read, mark or submit your ballot independently may be impacted. Accommodations like assistive technology (AT) devices are the only way that you can vote in private, just like everyone else.
Smith acknowledges the cost, “but we pay taxes.” Adding, “We’re going to keep pursuing it until it gets changed. We’re encouraging all people, especially in the blind community, to get out to vote.”
If a person with a disability had trouble voting or was not treated properly, they can contact the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), which receives federal funding under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to advocate to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the voting process.
The GAO voting hotline on Election Day in November will be open: 7am to 7pm.
The phone number is 404-885-1234 or 1-800-537-2329.
There is also a complaint process on the Secretary of State’s website.
Using Georgia’s New Voting Machines
- CHECK IN AT THE POLLS. Upon verifying their eligibility status, voters receive a smartcard to begin the process.
- MARK & PRINT YOUR PAPER BALLOT. A universal ballot marking device with accessible options, prints a paper ballot after voters mark and confirm their selections.
- PLACE YOUR COMPLETED BALLOT INTO THE SCANNER FOR COUNTING. All paper ballots go into a secure lock box.
GCDD Hosts Record-Breaking Advocacy Days
Over 650 disability advocates registered to attend the 2020 GCDD Advocacy Days at the Georgia State Capitol – making it the biggest series the DD Council has hosted since inception of the initiative.
Hosted by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) in January, February and March, advocates met with their legislators to discuss the issues important to the disability community in Georgia.
Four different Advocacy Days focused on policies affecting people with disabilities and brought together advocates from across the state to speak with their elected officials. Topics included Gracie’s Law, inclusive post-secondary education, home and community-based services and competitive, integrated employment. In addition to these four events, GCDD planned a fifth Advocacy Day to focus on the school-to-prison pipeline. Unfortunately, the final event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic that hit the United States in early March.
“All of our advocates – whether a self-advocate, a family member or a caregiver – were empowered to connect with their legislators to inform and educate them about issues that matter to them,” said Eric Jacobson, executive director of GCDD. “It was motivating to see advocacy in action and be at the forefront of positive change for people with developmental disabilities across Georgia.”
View all the Advocacy Days photos posted on Facebook.
Advocacy Days by the Numbers
- 221 - were able to educate and inform their legislators about issues important to them
- 276 - felt better informed/ trained on issues impacting individuals with developmental disabilities
- 292 - plan on continuing to advocate on behalf of people with developmental disabilities
Quotes from attendees:
“Everything was very well-organized and the team leaders were very knowledgeable and helpful.” – Toni Franklin, Educator
“Best Advocacy Days ever! Thanks to our Team Lead Sophia Turner, we met our representative and senators!” – Dawn Willis, Caregiver
“This event was great. I was able to use advocacy skills I acquired and advocate for Gracie’s Law.” – Nina Martinez, Self-Advocate
To read more in Making a Difference magazine, see below: