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Providers Who Care for People With Disabilities Deserve a Raise

This letter was originally published in the Syracuse Post-Standard. It has been adapted with permission from letter-writer Barbara Davis, a member of The Arc’s National Sibling Council.

I am the sister and legal guardian of a sibling with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD). She resides in Onondaga County in New York and receives services from The Arc of Onondaga. I live in Virginia and have been her long-distance advocate and guardian for the past 20 years, since our parents passed away. I would like to share with you the support and care my family has been fortunate to receive from The Arc throughout my sister’s lifetime.

Our family pediatrician referred my parents to The Arc shortly after my sister was born in 1954, and I can’t imagine what her life (or ours) would have been like without the essential services The Arc provides.

From childhood well into adulthood, she attended The Arc’s Day Habilitation program, where she learned daily living and social skills, made friends, and enjoyed group activities. She bonded not only with other participants but also with dedicated staff, who encouraged her and supported her with respect and patience. To this day, a retired day habilitation staff member remains in touch and meets up with my sister and me when I am in town.

My sister lived at home with my parents until my father passed away and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The Arc then assisted us in finding a residential placement. Before she died, my mother found great peace of mind knowing my sister would be living in a safe and supportive environment.

For the past 20 years, my sister has lived in a group home where she receives total care from direct support professionals. They provide meals, assist with such basic daily tasks as bathing and dressing, and provide transportation to doctor’s appointments. She also receives occupational therapy and physical therapy from The Arc. And the staff supports me by keeping me informed, helping me connect with my sister several times a week on FaceTime, and facilitating my in-person visits.

I cannot say enough about the dedication and hard work of the direct support professionals who have made such a difference in my sister’s life. At no time was this more apparent than during the COVID pandemic. When residents at my sister’s group home all came down with COVID, staff continued to show up every day to support and nurture the residents. Due to their wonderful care, all the residents recovered.

Without services and support from The Arc, my sister would have had a far more isolated life and fewer opportunities to develop her full potential. Instead, she is happy and sociable and “living her best life.” She loves her home and family at The Arc.

How To Help

Currently, chapters of The Arc and other nonprofit organizations that support people with IDD nationwide are experiencing a funding crisis. The amount that Medicaid reimburses these groups to pay dedicated direct support professionals is too low and not a livable wage. We need members of Congress, state legislatures, and governors to invest more resources in the essential services provided by The Arc and other nonprofits that support people with IDD and their families.

You can help by sending letters to your members of Congress and supporting your state chapter’s advocacy efforts.

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Landmark Trial Challenging Regressive Voting Rights Provisions in Texas Senate Bill 1 Concludes

Plaintiffs argue state law discriminates against voters of color and voters with disabilities, threatening democratic foundations.

San Antonio, TX – A six-week trial challenging regressive voting rights provisions in Texas’ Senate Bill 1 (S.B. 1) concluded with closing arguments today in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. The lawsuit asserts that S.B. 1 violates the First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by targeting and making more difficult the methods and means of voting used by voters of color. Plaintiffs also argue the law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act by imposing voting barriers that discriminate against voters with disabilities and deny people with disabilities full and equal opportunities to participate in the state’s voting programs.

The case is comprised of five lawsuits, including Houston Area Urban League v. Abbott, which was filed in 2021 by the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), Reed Smith LLP, ArentFox Schiff, and The Arc on behalf of the Houston Area Urban League (HAUL), Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., The Arc of Texas, and Jeffrey Lamar Clemmons, a poll worker.

Plaintiffs are challenging several provisions within the restrictive law including: a ban on drive-thru voting; restrictions on early voting hours, which impose a ban on 24-hour voting; and new ID requirements for voting by mail. S.B. 1 also establishes new requirements—and possible criminal penalties—for people who assist voters who need help filling out their ballots, including voters with disabilities.

The timing of a decision from Judge Xavier Rodriguez is pending.

“True democracy does not tolerate barriers that make it harder for citizens to vote based on race or ability, but rather it encourages voting and political participation because diversity of thought, ability, and background makes us stronger,” said Amir Badat, Special Counsel, Legal Defense Fund. “S.B. 1 runs counter to the sentiment of participation and democracy.”

“We are not just in a legal battle; we’re fighting for the very heart of our democracy,” said Elsie Cooke-Holmes, International President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. “S.B. 1 is a calculated assault on our foundational values. We remain steadfast in combating these discriminatory practices to guarantee every citizen’s unimpeded access to the ballot box, ensuring their vote is cast and counted.”

“Democracy works when elections are accessible to all eligible voters,” said Kenneth Broughton, Partner, Reed Smith LLP. “This legislation prevents, inhibits, and discourages eligible voters from casting their ballots in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.”

“We are proud to stand with our clients Houston Area Urban League, Delta Sigma Theta, The Arc of Texas, and Jeffrey Clemmons, to protect the rights of all Texans—no matter their race, their language, or whether or not they identify as having disability—to meaningfully participate in the political process,” said J. Michael Showalter, Partner, ArentFox Schiff.

“S.B. 1 poses a Catch-22 for disabled voters, because it makes both in-person voting and voting by mail more burdensome and inaccessible,” said Shira Wakschlag, Senior Director of Legal Advocacy & General Counsel, The Arc of the United States. “Throughout trial, we have heard from voters with disabilities about how S.B. 1 raises the cost of voting and forces voters with disabilities to rely on burdensome workarounds that require them to expend significant additional time, subject themselves to physical pain and mental stress, experience multiple ballot rejections, and work twice as hard as non-disabled voters in order to participate in the voting process and have their vote counted, making them feel like second-class citizens. This is not the equal opportunity the ADA was enacted to provide and cannot possibly be consistent with the ADA’s clear and comprehensive mandate to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities and integrate them into the mainstream of American life.”

“In 2020, we saw bigger turnout numbers in Harris County than ever before. Not only can we boast that we have the most diverse county in the nation, but we are also civically engaged,” said Judson Robinson III, President & CEO of the Houston Area Urban League. “We see S.B. 1 as a tool being used to completely disrupt diverse voter engagement and participation here in Houston. Additionally, S.B. 1 makes it nearly impossible for hourly workers to participate in our elections. We believe now, and always, that shift workers deserve their right to vote just like everyone else.”


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Texas Voters With Disabilities Share their Stories

The following blog post was originally published on the Legal Defense Fund’s website and is reposted here with permission. View the original blog here.

In San Antonio, Texas, community members and advocates gathered outside of the federal courthouse on October 2, 2023 with emblazoned signs in hand, shouting spirited chants. As a trial was underway inside, echoes of their rallying calls for voting rights reverberated through the city streets. Candace Wicks, a retired teacher who traveled 300 miles from Dallas to show her support, shared her story to the burgeoning crowd with a mixture of frustration and determination. Wicks, a Texas native who has disabilities, has remained unwavering in her commitment to voting her entire life—yet since the state’s restrictive voting law S.B. 1 was passed in 2021, she has faced significant barriers participating in the electoral process.

In last year’s midterm elections, Wicks encountered an array of obstacles in attempting to exercise her right to vote. Wicks, whose legs and nine fingers are amputated and does not have a consistent signature, had her ballot denied because of a new signature verification process that S.B. 1 requires. Wicks also cited the law’s curbside voting restrictions and additional, limiting requirements on voter assistance as detrimental requirements for disabled voters.

“People with disabilities already face numerous barriers and discrimination in their daily lives,” Wicks emphasized in her speech. “Voting should not be added to that list. Our democracy is only strong when it represents all its citizens.”

Wicks is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., a historically Black service-based sorority that is named a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the voter suppression law. Lupe v. Abbott, composed of five lawsuits including Houston Area Urban League v. Abbott, argues that S.B. 1 is discriminatory, imposing undue barriers on voters to participate in elections, especially voters of color and voters with disabilities.

Plaintiffs including the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., Houston Area Urban League, and The Arc of Texas argue that S.B. 1 violates the United States Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by targeting and burdening methods and means of voting, like drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting, that are largely used by voters of color. Plaintiffs also argue the law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act by inflicting barriers to voting on voters with disabilities by imposing restrictions on voter assistance and making it harder to vote by mail, denying them full and equal opportunities to participate in the state’s voting processes.

The six-week trial began on Sept. 11. In that time, witnesses took the stand to provide testimony about their own experiences attempting to access the ballot box. Since being enacted in 2021, the law has already had grave consequences, rendering many residents unable to vote and making the process of voting far more onerous and burdensome, resulting in significantly longer voting times and physical pain for some voters with disabilities. Some who attempted to vote had their ballots denied.

For the several millions of Texans the law’s provisions impacts, including an estimated 3-5 million voting-eligible Texans with disabilities, the reversal of this legislation is dire for our nation’s democracy. All Texas voters, regardless of their identities or backgrounds, deserve to be counted—and their voices heard.

“People with disabilities already face numerous barriers and discrimination in their daily lives. Voting should not be added to that list. Our democracy is only strong when it represents all its citizens.” – Candace Wicks, Retired Dallas Teacher and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Member


Leading a Fight Against Voter Suppression in Texas

In the fight for an inclusive democracy in Texas, civil rights organizations are working together to fight S.B. 1 and bring forth justice.

“Our challenge to S.B. 1 highlights that voter suppression is a disability rights issue and that the fight against voter suppression lies at the intersection of disability rights and racial justice,” said Amir Badat, LDF Voting Special Counsel, who manages LDF’s Voting Rights Defender and Prepared to Vote projects. “There are millions of Texans who have a disability. Voters with disabilities are entitled to equal access to the ballot box. S.B. 1 undermines that right by increasing the already significant burdens that voters with disabilities must overcome to cast their votes and have them counted. By bringing this case, our plaintiffs who have disabilities are telling the world that their voices matter and must be heard.”

The lawsuit challenges multiple provisions in S.B. 1 that, by imposing undue limitations on voting, disproportionately impact voters of color and voters with disabilities.

Voting restrictions imposed by S.B. 1 include:

  • Limitations on early voting hours.
  • A ban on 24-hour voting.
  • A ban on drive-thru voting.
  • Limitations on the distribution of mail-in ballot applications.
  • Limitations and possible penalties for voter assistants, including criminal felonies.
  • Expansion of the authority of partisan poll watchers.
  • Criminal penalties against poll workers seeking to maintain order at the polling place.

“There are millions of Texans who have a disability. Voters with disabilities are entitled to equal access to the ballot box. By bringing this case, our plaintiffs who have disabilities are telling the world that their voices matter and must be heard.” – Amir Badat, LDF Voting Rights Special Counsel and Voting Rights Defender and Prepared to Vote Projects Manager

While the Texas state legislature makes claims of voter fraud, a myth long debunked by experts and advocates alike, the passage of the law is antithetical to true integrity and democracy—placing significant hardship on voters who have historically been counted out.

Texas is one of at least 18 other states that have passed voter suppression laws in direct response to voters from marginalized communities, including voters of color and voters with disabilities, making their voices heard in record numbers during the 2020 elections. Within Texas’s long history of voter suppression is a painful reality—the intentional suppression, prevention, and displacement of minority votes.

“People with disabilities have the fundamental right to vote and participate in our democracy, but this right has too often been denied,” said Shira Wakschlag, Senior Director of Legal Advocacy and General Counsel for The Arc of the United States. “S.B. 1 disenfranchises voters with disabilities by making it harder to vote by mail and receive the assistance they need to vote, and it denies people with disabilities equal access to voting in violation of the law.”

Voting Rights Is a Disability Rights Issue

Texas Voters With Disabilities Share Their Stories

Four voters with disabilities who served as witnesses in the trial discussed how S.B. 1 impacted their ability to vote, and what they hope to see from the state’s voting policies moving forward.

Some quotes have been condensed for clarity.

TERI SALTZMAN, Travis County resident and member of The Arc of Texas and REVUP Texas

Teri SaltzmanTeri Saltzman is blind and faced a myriad of barriers to voting by mail in the midterm primary elections. Her mail ballot was rejected multiple times because the ID numbers she provided didn’t match her voter registration record. She could not cure her ballot online because the state’s website is inaccessible to blind voters. After four attempts at curing her ballot, she was notified that her ballot did not count. Saltzman’s ballot was again denied in November 2022.

“I registered to vote by mail based on my disability and I have always done this successfully in the past. When S.B. 1 passed, it was the first time in my life I had difficulty voting due to its ID requirements and burdens. I never had this amount of challenges voting. I was never unsure if my vote counted.

“S.B. 1 has meant a reversal of rights for this community. Disability rights has everything to do with voting rights. What they’re voting for—transportation, education, housing, all those things—are linked to their independence as a person with a disability. I will always vote. But when I look at the ballot [sitting here on my table], I look at it with trepidation. [Voting] is something that I love…it’s something that is important in my family. But now, after a whole year of fighting to exercise my right to vote, I have this hesitancy that I never had before. I’m mad that it is there. But I will still vote. I’m concerned about voters who are already hesitant—who if they come across these barriers, might be prevented from doing so at all.”

JODI LYDIA NUNEZ LANDRY, Harris County resident and member of The Arc of Texas and REVUP Texas

Lydia Nunez LandryJodi Lydia Nunez Landry has muscular dystrophy and has encountered significant barriers since S.B. 1 was enacted. Landry prefers to vote in person but is afraid to get voting assistance from her partner due to risk of criminal prosecution S.B. 1 has imposed on voter assistance. She explains that her disability is degenerative and that as a result, she will require even more assistance over time.

“I think voting is fundamental to our democracy. The people that we elect are the ones that hold the power and represent us and make policies that affect our entire lives. [Elected officials determine] whether disabled people can vote, get out of their homes or have employment and educational opportunities, whether people are institutionalized or whether they’re able to enjoy basic human rights.

“S.B. 1 has had a very profoundly negative impact on our community. My condition has progressed, and I’ve increasingly run into more obstacles [since S.B. 1 was enacted]. I completely rely on my partner, who is also my personal attendant, to assist me with things.

“I think it really boils down to whether people believe that disabled people or any people from marginalized groups are deserving of the full benefits of democracy. We’re all interconnected. Disabled people come from every walk of life. And I think that’s the beauty of, at least, the promise of democracy—we all get to enjoy the same basic human rights and privileges as everyone else.”

LAURA HALVORSON, Bexar County resident and member of The Arc of Texas and REVUP Texas

Laura HalversonLaura Halvorson has muscular dystrophy and chronic neuromuscular respiratory failure. Halvorson relies on a power machine, a breathing machine, and personal care attendants for a majority of her care. Halvorson has encountered significant barriers to voting since S.B. 1 was enacted. Unlike previous years, Halvorson could not get assistance to vote by mail. Her personal care attendant, who is a green card holder, was not willing to assist Halvorson with her mail ballot during the March 2022 primary due to the threat of criminal liability and the potential impact on her legal status. As a result, Halvorson had no choice but to open and mark the ballot herself—a process which took her multiple attempts and was significantly longer and more arduous than if she had been assisted. As a result of these challenges, Halvorson chose to vote in person in the November 2022 election — a process which again took her significantly longer and was far more difficult because she did not receive any assistance.

“This new voting law makes it even harder for people to vote and [is] a huge act of voter suppression in a state with already one of lowest voter turnouts in the country. Once S.B. 1 was enacted and I experienced new barriers in voting, I felt it was important to share my story.

“I hope voting becomes easier and more accessible for people with disabilities in Texas, but I do not see how that could be possible with S.B. 1 still in place.

“It is important for people with disabilities and others in our lives to let our voices and issues be heard by politicians and reflected in their platforms to show the power of the disability vote. About one in four Americans has a disability, and many acquire a disability through the aging process and now also through long Covid, so disability issues affect many people and/or their loved ones in the voting process and access.”

JENNIFER MILLER, Travis County resident and member of The Arc of Texas

Jennifer Miller is the mother of an adult daughter, Danielle, who has autism. Miller regularly assists her daughter to vote, yet has encountered significant barriers in doing so since S.B. 1 was enacted.

“I care very much about this country as a long-time resident of Texas, and I care very much about my daughter. She has learned civic responsibility, and as a person with a disability, voting really makes a difference for her and her community. As a supportive parent, I want to let my daughter have the best life she can and be independent. One of those factors is her being able to exercise her right to vote.

“Voting is a constitutional right. If [S.B. 1] continues, a lot of people might give up and not vote. And that’s not right, because their voices need to be heard. Voting is everything to marginalized communities. The [Americans with Disabilities Act] isn’t that old, and we’re still fighting for rights.”

Being Heard, Being Counted: Making Democracy Inclusive for All

Closing arguments in the trial will be heard in February 2024. As voters await the trial’s results, one thing is certain — every voter has a voice that should be heard through the electoral process, and all people, regardless of their identity or background, are entitled to fully participate in our nation’s democracy. Texas’s electoral process should be accessible to all. A true democracy should be more than an ideal—it should be fully enforced through protections for all voters, including those who have historically had their ballots left out.

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Why Black Disabled History Matters

The following blog post was originally published on the World Institute on Disability’s website and is reposted here with permission. View the original blog here.

By Dikko Yusuf

Black disabled history is an aspect of Black history, which informs world history. Black History Month is officially celebrated every year in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and the UK. During this month, we celebrate the achievements of Black leaders throughout history and while many of these leaders also had a disability, that aspect is often minimized or overlooked. Black disabled people are multiply-marginalized, and more prominent awareness of the accomplishments of Black leaders, who are often also disabled, can help drive and inform systems change for the current and future generations of disabled people around the world.

Black Disabled Leaders in History

Disability has often been erased from the stories of many Black historical figures. Disabled activists Vilissa Thompson, Heather Watkins, and Ola Ojewumi all highlight how their exposure to Black history in school failed to account for the disabilities of Black civil rights leaders.

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman and pianist and composer Thomas Wiggins are good examples to consider here. Tubman had epileptic seizures since she was 12, and is remembered for leading enslaved Black people through underground passageways to freedom. Wiggins was born blind and is celebrated for being the first Black person to perform at the White House.

A historical account that recognizes Tubman’s disability is more likely to examine how her disability influenced how or when she did certain things. When we recognize Wiggins’ disability, his story becomes more than a musician’s biography; it becomes the history of disabled musicians.  Without an acknowledgment of their disabilities, their stories are incomplete.

Throughout history, many other Black disabled people helped to secure rights and representation for people with disabilities.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and the vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party. Johnnie Lacy helped found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living in 1981. She also served on Hayward’s Commission on Personnel and Affirmative Action, and the Mayor’s Disability Council for the city and county of San Francisco. Both Lacy and Hamer had polio and made an indelible mark for Black women and disabled people’s rights in the U.S.

Brad Lomax was yet another Black disabled leader who made history. Lomax was a member of the Black Panther Party and had multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair. In 1977, he participated in the historic 504 Sit-ins at the San Francisco Federal Building and encouraged the Black Panthers to provide meals and other supplies to the protestors. The 504 Sit-ins achieved its objective on April 28, 1977, when the secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), Joseph A. Califano Jr., signed the regulations  to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Joyce Jackson, who contracted arthritis at the age of 12, was also a civil rights activist. She was among 20 other activists that went to Washington D.C. to make a case to officials in the Carter administration for the implementation of Section 504 By the HEW.

Audre Lorde was a Black lesbian writer with breast cancer and civil and disability rights activist. Her powerful and evocative poetry broadly drew from her identity which included the intersections of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and homophobia.

Lois Curtis was a disability rights advocate who grew up with cognitive and developmental disabilities and spent nearly 20 years in institutions, at different points in her life. The landmark Supreme Court ruling on her case, Olmstead v. L.C., that institutionalizing people with disabilities was discriminatory, was a monumental and watershed moment in the Independent Living Movement.

Black disabled leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Brad Lomax, Joyce Jackson, Audre Lorde, Lois Curtis, Johnnie Lacy and many more championed civil rights and fought hard against ableism and racism. Black disabled history adds a comprehensive component to the way we interpret historical figures and events. It gives us a richer and clearer perspective on important moments today and throughout history.

As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently  blocked a Black studies course for high-achieving high schoolers and other conservative politicians push to block Black history from being taught in schools, we must make a concerted effort to make sure these stories are told. Black history acknowledges the experiences of oppression and marginalization faced by Black people and the systemic racism that Black people continue to face globally. When Black history is hidden, systemic racism continues to be denied by members of the next generation of leaders and decision-makers, and through that denial, the systems remain in place.

Black disabled history represents the experiences of multiply-marginalized individuals confronted by racism and ableism. During disasters and emergencies, for instance, Black disabled people, who often live in resource-deprived areas, experience worse outcomes in relation to white disabled people. They are also disproportionately impacted because their disability needs are not considered in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Apart from the oppressive racism faced by Black people, Black disabled people also have to contend with the ableism that limits their ability to access opportunities and resources. Additionally, Black disabled people face discrimination and violence through systems of policing. The limited data we have on the topic shows that more than 50% of Black disabled people will be arrested by the time they turn 28, and at least 50% of people killed by police are disabled. Many of the high-profile cases of Black people killed by police were significantly impacted by the victims’ disabilities, but very little media coverage acknowledges the impact of the combination of racism and ableism on these cases. Black people with disabilities also have to live with the fear of being further marginalized by disclosing their disabled identities.

“Black people may be hesitant to identify as disabled for fear of further discrimination based on that identity,” Ojewumi said.

This fear of discrimination also drives some Black people to hide their disabilities and code-switch or alter their language to sound less Black, around white peers. When we have Black disabled stories told in the mainstream media, we are able to create diverse and inclusive societies that recognize the experiences of a group that is often overlooked. When these stories are told, we are able to examine the intersectionality and sociopolitical ramifications of being Black and disabled.

Beyond Black History Month

Discussions about the achievements of Black disabled leaders should be held all year round, not just during Black History Month. Furthermore, it is important to not just celebrate Black disabled history, but to also work to create a society that is inclusive of Black disabled people. The disability justice framework is a great place to start. The disability justice framework recognizes the intersectionality of disabled people who belong to additional marginalized communities and is a necessary ideology to achieve the liberation of Black disabled people. When we acknowledge Black disabled history, we can create a better future for Black disabled people of today and tomorrow. Black disabled history is world history.