Disability advocates relay concerns of abuse, voting access

Thursday, May 07, 2009
By Tina Calabro

Once per year, Three Rivers Center for Independent Living provides an opportunity for local, state and federal lawmakers to learn about issues of the disability community and to put a face on those issues.  This year’s legislative breakfast was on April 17 and included representatives of 15 elected officials and about 100 disability rights advocates.  TRCIL, based in Wilkinsburg, is a nonprofit, nonresidential agency that provides information, support, training and advocacy to empower people with disabilities.  TRCIL’s annual legislative breakfast has evolved into a tangible representation of activism and solidarity within the local disability community. As one local advocate told the gathering, “We keep hitting the wall until it starts having cracks.”  The room in which the breakfast is held — at TRCIL’s historic Rebecca Avenue building — features a banner with words of inspiration from of the late Justin Dart, who led the campaign for the Americans with Disabilities act: “Get involved in politics as if your life depended on it … because it does.”

Stanley Holbrook, TRCIL president and CEO, opened the event by imploring legislators to “find out what people want rather than creating dependency on a system that doesn’t fit our needs.”  He reminded the audience that “as humans, we are vulnerable to disability. What we do here can affect many.”  Topics covered at the two-hour event included “visitability” tax credits; the need for a protection-from-abuse law for adults; the disposition of the former Mayview institution property; ensuring the permanency of the state’s office for disability policy; voting rights; and a proposed Medicare change.  Richard Meritzer, Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for Pittsburgh and facilitator of the City-County Task on Disabilities, explained the need for local taxing authorities to implement “visitability” tax credits — incentives to improve access to buildings — for homeowners.  He also announced the city’s efforts toward obtaining audible traffic signals, an ambulance with a wheelchair lift, and the addition of Braille information on employee business cards.

Mr. Meritzer’s presentation represented a coup for the disability community. In 2008, he was officially promoted to ADA coordinator, a position that had been eliminated for funding reasons several years ago. Before being named to that position, Mr. Meritzer handled ADA compliance in addition to other duties at the Department of City Planning.  Sherie Lammers of the National MS Society reported on Senate Bill 699, a “protection from abuse” law for adults ages 18 to 59.  Pennsylvania is one of the few states that do not have such a law, although children under 18 and adults 60 and older are protected. As an example of the need for the law, she told the story of a local man who was tied to his wheelchair each day while his caretaker, a family member, went to work.  “Current laws are not adequate to stop abuse,” Ms. Lammers said. “I would like to be standing here next year thanking you for enacting this law and saving lives.”  The sale of the Mayview property, the former site of an institution in South Fayette, was the topic presented by Sally Jo Snyder of the Consumer Health Coalition. The group is urging the state to sell the property at market rate and to place the proceeds in a fund to support community mental health.

Evelyn Stypula, vice chair of the Governor’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities, urged legislators to vote to establish a permanent office for disability issues, so the current office doesn’t disappear when Gov. Ed Rendell steps down in 2010.  Georgie Blackburn, representing Blackburns, a medical equipment provider based in Tarentum, asked legislators to challenge a proposal to reduce the number of Medicare-eligible providers of durable medical equipment from more than 4,000 to the 400 lowest bidders. The proposal would harm small business and limit consumer choice, she said.  Paul O’Hanlon of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania gave an update on efforts to remove barriers that keep people with disabilities from voting. He noted that, through local advocacy, the number of inaccessible voting sites in Allegheny County decreased from 200-plus a few years ago to just 10 now.

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