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Disability Day 2014: Thousands Gather to Advocate for Meaningful Living

By Devika Rao
Courtesy of Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities

On February 20, 2014, in front of nearly 2,500 people, Governor Nathan Deal stood proudly on the Georgia State Capitol steps to announce that the day would be officially proclaimed, “Disability Awareness Day.”

The Governor’s proclamation was presented to the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) at its 16th annual Disability Day rally held at the Capitol to bring together thousands of advocates from across the State to promote access, opportunity and meaningful community living for Georgians with disabilities and their families.

Various groups brought their enthusiasm to the annual kick off at the Georgia Freight Depot to raise awareness about the rights and concerns of persons with disabilities. Gathering at the depot, attendees made posters advocating for equal opportunities in education and the workplace knowing that the contributions of people with disabilities in the community is not only wanted, but also needed.

This day also had an additional, and equally, important tone as it celebrated the 15th anniversary of the US Supreme Court landmark decision upheld in 1999, Olmstead versus L.C. The Supreme Court case, which found its roots in Georgia, states that people with disabilities have the right to live in the community rather than institutions or nursing homes

Lois Curtis, the surviving plaintiff in the Olmstead case joined the Disability Day Rally and celebration. Her story of victory was not only a victory for herself; it is, to this day, a victory for all. To show the power of the collective voice and have people share personal stories of freedom and independence was the objective of GCDD’s Disability Day theme, “We All Have a Story...What’s Yours?”

GCDD Executive Director Eric E. Jacobson kicked off the event with a rousing speech highlighting the many efforts that GCDD is throwing its support behind in the new legislative session. One of the most important policy objectives he drew attention to was that of employment.

“We are talking about people going to work,” he said. “Jobs are the most important thing that any individual can have. A job allows you to have a home. A job allows you to go out and have a good time. Because, it is about having a job, and it makes you a valuable person.”

The statement rang true as Jacobson announced that GCDD would work with the advocacy community to push for passage of legislation to make “employment the first option for all people in the State of Georgia.”

Employment opportunities for people with disabilities is why Josette Akhras from Putnam County was at her fourth Disability Day event. Advocating for her son Riad, Akhras, a GCDD executive committee member, came to the Capitol to stand up for people who, like her son, want to expand their horizons.

“My son is capable,” she said. Her son was working with a close family friend, but otherwise, Riad had no options after he completed high school.

In his address to the crowd, Greg Schmeig, executive director of Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA), emphasized the importance of employers hiring persons with disabilities and their valuable contribution to businesses.

As the State continues to grow economically, Schmeig highlighted that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is way too high across both the country and Georgia.

Today, approximately 70 to 80 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed, according to Schmeig.

Schmeig noted that Georgia’s economic recovery and growth needs to include employment for citizens with disabilities. “For every one dollar that a state spends on helping a person with a disability get a job, the return for that state is anywhere from three to 16 dollars,” added Schmeig. “Hiring someone with a disability is not only good for business, but it’s good for Georgia.” Support for more job opportunities also came from inside the Capitol.

Governor Nathan Deal, in a keynote address, spoke of his commitment to employment for all Georgians, including people with disabilities. In order to address the employment barriers for people with disabilities, Deal informed everyone that, “we have a working group in the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities whom I have asked how we can move forward with an Employment First initiative in Georgia.”

According to its website, Employment First Georgia (EFG) is a statewide resource promoting innovative, customized employment practices. Each individual will be supported to pursue his or her own unique path to work, a career, or his or her contribution to participation in community life. EFG provides technical assistance and consultation to individuals and their “team” (family, job coach, etc). GCDD is part of a coalition of organizations that support EFG.

Dawn Alford, GCDD’s planning and public policy development specialist, highlighted the progress made for employment during this legislative session. The Georgia House of Representatives had included $250,000 for 64 people to access supported employment which was increased to $500,000 by the Senate.

Deal also touched on another important initiative and advocacy movement that is garnering support from GCDD and advocates alike. Post-secondary education made waves in 2013 as Kennesaw State University kicked off its Academy for Inclusive Learning and Social Growth, which is the only program in Georgia that provides a two-year college experience for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

In addition to the program at Kennesaw State University, post-secondary programs are expanding and in fall 2014, a new one will open its doors at East Georgia State College in Swainsboro, GA

Advocates are also seeking progress on accessibility.

Working closely with advocacy groups, Representative Keisha Waites (D-Dist 60) announced that the groups are teaming up to increase accessibility to electronic textbooks for the visually impaired. Access to tangible and attainable post-secondary opportunities proves beneficial for future successful access to employment opportunities for all people, with or without disabilities. That is what disability advocate and leader Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi brought to Disability Day...to be a voice that inspires engagement and moving forward for equal rights.

Mizrahi launched Respectability USA in July 2013 and has broken great ground in her self-advocacy for disability rights. Its mission is to “reshape the attitudes of American society so that people with disabilities can more fully participate in and contribute to society, and empower people with disabilities to achieve as much of the American dream as their abilities and efforts permit.”

The same rights, Mizrahi emphasized, need to be present in pushing for post-secondary and workplace opportunities for people with disabilities. The Emory University alumna noted that local employers such as The Georgia Aquarium have at least 10 employees with disabilities and her own alma mater employs 35 people with disabilities who work in the nursing, anesthesia, administration and other various departments.

“They are models of inclusive employers,” she said as she listed The Atlanta Braves, The Home Depot, Publix and many more who embrace equal opportunity amidst all groups for hiring.

As she spoke about landmark social justice movements and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. that have shaped social policies in the country, Mizrahi recognized Lois Curtis in the audience and acknowledged the value of Curtis’ activism and Olmstead triumph as the crowd responded with a warm round of applause.

Rep. Katie Dempsey (R-Dist. 13) referenced Olmstead and encouraged the crowd to tell their story to legislators. “We all have a story, you’re right. Your personal story is what you need to share with each and every person in that building behind you,” she said in reference to the Capitol.

To help document the upcoming 15th anniversary celebration of Olmstead and the impact this landmark Supreme Court ruling has had on thousands of individuals living in Georgia and across the nation, NPR’s StoryCorps was onsite to record and collect more “I am Olmstead” Stories of Freedom narratives from people who are living full lives in the community rather than institutions.

Among the six storytellers was Andrew Furey, a self-advocate, artist and Eagle Scout from Lula who fought a long, frustrating battle to receive nursing supports in his home. “I didn’t want to be in a nursing home; I wanted the right to stay in my own home.” “I am Andrew Furey and I am Olmstead,” he declared.

Mizrahi also brought attention to the current federal legislation in Congress that is close to passage with the need of five more votes, at the time of this writing.

The ABLE Act uses tax cuts to help provide for savings for people with disabilities and noted US Senator Johnny Isakson’s support behind the legislation. She encouraged people to reach out to the senators to have their voices heard on this bill to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.

Like Mizrahi, Jacobson and Deal, many state representatives and senators took the podium to encourage civic engagement by letting the voice of the people be heard.

Representative Alisha Thomas Moore (D-Dist 39) reminded the crowd that, “whether it comes to housing or employment or whatever your issues, it is important that policymakers know the issues that are important to you.”

In addition to post-secondary education and employment rights, the Unlock the Waiting Lists! Campaign is a cause that is garnering much attention to open more waiver slots for services for people with disabilities.

“This is your State, my State, and we deserve these services,” said Representative Winfred Duke (D-Dist 154).

As legislative leaders such as Senator John Albers (R-Dist 56) and Representative E. Culver “Rusty” Kidd (I-Dist. 145) spoke to the gathered crowd, their message was in the same spirit.

“You don’t have disabilities. We do,” said Albers, who is chairman of the State Institutions and Property committee. “If we can see life the way you do, the world would be a better place.”

Kidd reminded the crowd gathered that advocacy doesn’t stop at Disability Day. He emphasized that the fight forges on for equal rights in education and employment. as well as the Unlock the Waiting Lists! Campaign. “One phone call makes a difference!” Kidd said.

The rally gatherers adjourned to the Georgia Freight Depot for lunch, legislator visits, exhibits and other activities including the Disability Day banner signing, an accessible voting machine demonstration, and a special listening station set-up presenting the “I Am Olmstead – Stories of Freedom,” organized by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

During this time, self-advocate Andrew Furey shared his Olmstead story of freedom and the Tumlin family presented Ralph “Robbie” Breshears from Augusta the Georgia Outstanding Self-Advocate of the Year Award--In Loving Memory of Natalie Norwood Tumlin. Breshears is a certified work incentives coordinator and after a battle with leukemia, he now advocates and fights for medical gaps in insurance.

With substantial support from Georgia legislators and the community, GCDD’s 16th annual Disability Day at the Capitol proved the old adage of “strength in numbers.”