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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Champions for People with Disabilities

By Cami Weaver, Becoming Independent, Sonoma County

Anyone wondering how we’ll manage without Sen. Ted Kennedy was reassured by President Obama.

At the close of his health care reform speech to Congress, Obama cited a letter Kennedy wrote to him in advance of his death, expressing confidence that health care reform would be passed.

Kennedy’s continuing influence came alive when the President told us how Kennedy wrote that we are facing a “moral issue” in the debate over how to ensure that all Americans have access to quality and affordable health care.

“At stake are not just the details of policy,” Kennedy wrote, “but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

At Becoming Independent, where we work for 1200 people with developmental disabilities, we’ve recently seen “principles of social justice and the character of our country” take a back seat to details of policy.

Faced with ever increasing revenue shortfalls, the State Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger made policy decisions to cut or reduce programs to the infants, teens, and adults who depend on BI for help.

Our state funding is being cut by $1.2 million.

Dental care under MediCal for many of our 1,200 BI participants is on the chopping block.

The Governor penciled out $50 million in early intervention funds for at-risk infants, a penny-wise, pound-foolish act that will hurt families and kids and cost us much more money as children grow up.

Funding has been cut for our Teen Zone, a promising pilot project in Healdsburg that showed the value of afterschool programs for teenager and young adults with disabilities.

We face these financial challenges at the same time we’ve lost two champions for people with disabilities, Sen. Kennedy and his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

How can we begin to thank these two Kennedys?

Credit Ted Kennedy for the civil rights, education and health care that enable people with disabilities to live meaningful lives – the American with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Higher Education Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act and Voting Rights Act.

Because of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, millions of men and women with disabilities get their place in the lime light through Special Olympics. Special Olympics recognized people with disabilities as athletes. They train and have coaches and uniforms and then perform in athletic competitions that people pay attention to. The value of that can never be overstated.

So, how do we proceed without them?

First, we follow the lead of people with disabilities themselves.

And then we follow the examples set by the Kennedys and other families to help people with disabilities realize their vision of their lives.

I have no doubt the lifelong advocacy Eunice Shriver and Sen. Kennedy performed on behalf of people with disabilities is linked to the challenges faced by their sister, Rosemary Kennedy, whose perceived “mental retardation” was made worse by a lobotomy and who lived her life in an institution.

At BI we are inspired by the dedication and advocacy of parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters who want more for their loved ones with special challenges.

And we see and hear the self-advocacy of the men and women we serve. They are people with disabilities, yes, but they are people first, and they won’t be shortchanged. That was clear this past summer when 250 men and women with disabilities, their families and some staff rallied in front of the State Building in Santa Rosa to protest budget cuts.

About 30 people with disabilities took charge, and lined up at the microphone to voice their opinions.

They are the ones who best demonstrate the legacy the Kennedys leave behind.

Cami Weaver is CEO of Becoming Independent which provides job, education and support services for people with disabilities in Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties.

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