The Push and Pull Towards an Inclusive Nation

For most Americans, turning twenty-one is an exciting birthday.  But for college student Andrew Furey, it was the date set by the state of Georgia to stop the home health services he needed to stay alive.  Andrew has muscular dystrophy and uses a ventilator and other complex equipment to breathe.  Georgia would provide Andrew these health services in a nursing home but not in his own home.  The Atlanta Legal Aid Society appealed this decision and won, so Andrew was able to receive the services he needed at home.

Over the last 50 years, the battle for inclusion has been a main plot of our American story.  It is a battle we are winning, and  one that we are losing.  It deepens our pride and sometimes our prejudice.  Although often overshadowed, the disability community has been at the center of this struggle for inclusion and our evolving understanding of what inclusion means.

We have seen the push and pull toward inclusion erupt in many forms over the past few weeks.  Most recently, the Supreme Court affirmed both a critical tool in the Fair Housing Act and the right to gay marriage. Yet, we also saw abhorrent acts of violence based on race.  And yet… we saw an Indian American Governor and two Senators (one white and one black) lead South Carolina in taking down its Confederate Flag.  And yet…

In the midst of these skirmishes, people with disabilities celebrate two of the greatest victories for inclusion in our country’s history: Olmstead v. LC (1999) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). These landmark events are related.

Olmstead, an Atlanta Legal Aid Society case, is often called the “Brown v. Board decision” for people with disabilities. The Court explained that its holding “reflects two evident judgments.” First, “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable of or unworthy of participating in community life.” Second, “confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.” It ordered the state of Georgia to assist two women with disabilities so they could live in their own homes rather than continuing to confine them to a hospital for people with similar disabilities. Olmstead is slowly transforming our country from a 19th century system of institutions, isolation, and dependence, to a 21st century nation of inclusion, opportunity, and independence.  And yet… amidst the celebration, we recognize that thousands with disabilities still languish on waiting lists, in institutions, and without jobs – waiting for the promise of inclusion to materialize.

On July 26th, we marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While today we take it for granted, the passage of the ADA was an arduous struggle.  It is best symbolized by Tom Olin’s photograph of men and women with disabilities leaving their wheelchairs and pushing their way up the steps of the Capitol. In signing the act, President George H.W. Bush declared that the ADA would ensure people with disabilities “the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”

Even though the ADA created legal requirements to enable inclusion and stop discrimination, people with disabilities are often still segregated into institutions and excluded. Civil legal aid providers, including those in the national Protection & Advocacy system, play a critical role in ensuring fair treatment of people with disabilities; but the available resources are insufficient to meet the need.  These organizations advocate for accessible and integrated education, employment, housing, and healthcare for people with disabilities of all ages.  In many states, men and women with disabilities – many of whom live with aging parents – need the help of legal advocates in order to obtain the supports.  Without such help, they may be forced to join others like them who already languish in institutions.

In Georgia, the past five years have shown both the promise of Olmstead and the enormous work that remains.  The United States Department of Justice – in collaboration with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the Georgia Advocacy Office, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and other mental health advocates – reached a settlement to close the state’s psychiatric hospitals and provide an array of supports, including housing, to thousands of Georgians with severe and persistent mental illness.  The state also promised to transition everyone with developmental disabilities from the state hospitals to the community, and to provide limited services to people with developmental disabilities in the community.

Due to the settlement, Georgia has invested more than $170 million in new dollars into these systems with mixed success.  A range of new services are enabling people with mental illness to live meaningful lives in the community.  The state is providing 2,300 new state housing vouchers similar to Section 8 and has adopted a housing first policy that ensures permanent stable housing as a first step before services are initiated.  On the developmental disability side, the state has realized its infrastructure of services is broken and has placed a moratorium on transitions.  The Justice Department and Georgia are negotiating an extension of that part of the settlement.

There is still more to do on Olmstead.  The Atlanta Legal Aid Society will continue to advocate for Georgians in nursing homes who want to be in the community and will push the state to address the 7,900 person waiting list for developmental disability services – a list that includes 2,890 people waiting years for services despite the fact that the state has determined that they need services within six months.

This is just Georgia.  Olmstead cases are being brought to courts across the olmstead2country.  Civil legal aid attorneys now have new tools to bring these cases with pleadings and a legal outline on the new website, developed by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society in partnership with the National Disability Rights Network.  The website also shares the history of Olmstead, provides tools for people to advocate for themselves, and tells the stories of men and women whose lives have been transformed by Olmstead.

In the years since Olmstead and the passage of the ADA, we as a country have engaged in the difficult and revolutionary work of real inclusion.  We have wrestled with what actions governments, businesses, and each of us must take to accommodate our fellow citizens who use wheelchairs and who have sight and hearing impairments.  We have brought students who learn differently into our regular classes.  And we have helped people return to their own homes who thought they would die in nursing facilities.

Along the way, we have learned the value of inclusion.  Ramps assist people with disabilities, and also aging family members, parents with strollers, and, of course, our rolling suitcases.  Assistive technology, smart phones, and computers have made life easier and more efficient for everyone – not just people with disabilities. And our workplaces, classrooms and communities benefit from the participation and contributions of people who formerly would have been unnecessarily locked away in institutions.

In our rapidly diversifying nation, the battle over inclusion will continue in politics, the courtroom, and our local neighborhoods.  The nation should continue to look to our extraordinary disability community for how to do inclusion well.  And yet… our nation must also recognize how far we have to go.



Why We’re Hosting TalkPoverty and Disability Week

“Together, we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted. For ours will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper.”

– President George H.W. Bush, at the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act

 The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 25 on Sunday, and it has done a tremendous amount to break down barriers and open doors for people with disabilities. Many of my closest friends and colleagues count themselves members of the “ADA generation” and proclaim with confidence that they would not be where they are today if not for the passage of this watershed legislation. But as we celebrate this important landmark, it would be a grave mistake to declare that the struggle for inclusion is over as a great deal of work remains.

As I’ve written here before, disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty, and twenty-five years after the signing of the ADA, the two still go hand in hand. The poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities remains more than double that for people without disabilities.

People with disabilities are also significantly more likely to experience material hardships—things like food insecurity; not being able to pay rent, mortgage, or utilities; or inability to access needed medical care—than people without disabilities, even at the same income levels. The same is true for families caring for a child with a disability.

People with disabilities are also nearly twice as likely to lack even modest savings to help them weather job loss, an unexpected bill, or other financial shock, according to the National Disability Institute.

Until disability inclusion is a core part of the economic justice movement, we’ll continue to miss a huge piece of the puzzle.

As we look ahead to the next 25 years of breaking down barriers, it’s time to examine our own work as advocates for change. The next wall that needs to come down is the one that keeps disability advocacy in its own bucket, separate and apart from the broader fight for a fair economy and equal opportunity. Until disability inclusion—both social and economic—is a core part of the economic justice movement, we’ll continue to miss a huge piece of the puzzle.

Much of the economic agenda to break the link between disability and poverty is already mainstream. Raising the minimum wage. Boosting the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without dependent children. Expanding Medicaid. Paid leave and paid sick days. Strengthening Social Security (including updating the woefully outdated Supplemental Security Income asset limits). Add in affordable, accessible housing; accessible transportation; and ensuring access to long-term services and supports and we’ve got a to-do list that would go a long way toward reducing poverty and expanding opportunity for people with disabilities.

As President George H.W. Bush’s signed the ADA into law, he closed his remarks with this: “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”  Let’s take that to heart not only as we fight for inclusionary social and economic policies, but as we shape our work and tactics as change-makers.

It is in that spirit that throughout next week, will feature posts from disability leaders, all exploring the link between disability and poverty and solutions that would increase economic opportunity for people with disabilities. This week is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of the topic. But we hope it will help advance this important conversation, and we look forward to working with our readers, contributors, and partners to break down the silos that have kept disability separate from the broader fight for economic justice for far too long.




Netroots Nation Roundup

It’s time for a very special episode of the nation’s one and only weekly poverty podcast.

This week the TalkPoverty Radio team headed out to Phoenix, Arizona to attend Netroots Nation, a gathering to exchange ideas on how to use media and technology to influence the public debate.

              Travel Trip Phoenix Super Bowl Football

We open this week’s episode with the Weekly Worst, a round up of the week’s worst poverty news, with Alan Pyke, Deputy Economic Policy Editor for Think Progress.  We then join Rebecca on the ground in Phoenix as she talks with Katie Klabusich, writer and reproductive justice activist, who discusses the need to include economic justice in all social justice movements. Rebecca then talks to Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA) about the push to raise the income threshold for overtime pay. We then hear from Analilia Mejia, Executive Director of New Jersey Working Families, about her work advocating for paid sick days for working families amid opposition from Governor Chris Christie (R) and the state legislature. And we close with the voices of the Black Lives Matter protestors who shifted the conversation of the Netroots Presidential Town Hall.

 Here are 7 of our favorite moments from this week’s episode:

  1. “So it wasn’t the maggots. It wasn’t the unrefrigerated meatballs…it was something else!”

Prison Food Tasting

  1. “I can’t imagine how often my folks would have gotten arrested when I was a kid…”

Danielle Meitiv, Rafi Meitiv, Dvora Meitiv

3.“Is there a term for the opposite of mansplaining?”

Cordell Hull, Henry Wallace, John W. McCormack

     4.“If you’re not including economic justice in your movement, you’re doing it wrong.”

Minimum Wage

  1. “This is one of the tools that we have to raise American workers’ wages, and it can be done with the stroke of a pen.”


  1. “The devil has enough advocates.”

Germany Walpurgis Night

  1. “Welcome to Arizona, where the Martin Luther King holiday was repealed.”

Martin O'Malley, Jose Vargas, Tia Oso

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Kids Should be Focused on Homework, Not Working to Find a Home

Brandy became homeless during her sophomore year in high school. She, her mom, and her sister left a home riddled with abuse. Brandy moved more than 15 times – staying in shelters, with friends, friends of friends, and eventually with anyone who would let her sleep on their floor or couch.

Despite these constant shifts, Brandy was able to stay in the same school because of a federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which among other things paved the way for the hiring of two school “homeless liaisons.” These liaisons helped her travel to and from school, made sure she had something to eat during the day, clothes to wear, and encouraged her to aspire and thrive. This law and the support she received in school proved critical to Brandy’s success in high school and later in college.

As a civil legal aid attorney with Columbia Legal Services, I help homeless students and their families address barriers to their enrollment and participation in school. I use a variety of tools such as community education about McKinney-Vento, data and policy analysis, and individual and legislative advocacy.

McKinney-Vento recognizes and provides strong protections that promote education continuity. It gives homeless students the right to transportation to and from school; the right to enroll in school immediately (even without registration records); and the right to have a district-level homeless liaison that helps out with whatever a student may need for academic success. Those protections make McKinney-Vento one of the strongest education laws and, when enforced, it has done a great deal to assist students like Brandy. But far too few students are afforded these crucial legal rights. Take Brandy’s sister, Felicity. She did not receive the support of a homeless liaison. With each move, she lost credits, friends, and the opportunity to receive a basic education. She repeated the ninth grade four times.

Felicity’s story is unjust and all too common. In Washington State alone, we have 32,000 homeless students, which represents an 82 percent increase from the 2006-2007 school year. That’s enough to fill half of the seats in the Seattle Seahawks’ enormous football stadium. It’s particularly disturbing because children are estimated to lose four to six months in academic progress each time they move during the school year.

Imagine trying to focus in school when you have moved five times during the school year because your family could not find an affordable place to stay

Children and youth who are of colorLGBT, who have limited English proficiency or disabilities are more likely to be homeless than their peers. We also know that homeless students struggle in school when compared to their housed peers; in fact, they are less than half as likely to be proficient in math, with similar gaps in other subjects. These disparities also hurt local communities and society generally, since these students are about half as likely to graduate as their housed peers and more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. It makes sense because imagine trying to focus in school when you have moved five times during the school year because your family could not find an affordable place to stay; or trying to study for an important math test in a crammed one-bedroom apartment where seven other people live.

This crisis of student homelessness comes fourteen years after the passage of McKinney-Vento. While the federal government provides grants to help schools fulfill their obligations under the legislation, these dollars are extremely limited. For example, in Washington, only 34 of 295 school districts received McKinney-Vento grants last year. That means most schools don’t have a homeless liaison, and when they do, they are juggling multiple job positions and can only devote a few hours a week to serving the needs of homeless students. As a result, students suffer and the spirit of the legislation is undermined.

The fact is that we need to increase funding for McKinney-Vento. But we can’t stop there. We must also provide housing subsidies to families experiencing homelessness. A recent study, by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that families are more likely to maintain stable housing if provided with a permanent housing subsidy.

With this idea in mind, Columbia Legal Services is working to provide stable housing for homeless students and their families by engaging in state-level advocacy. In 2014, we helped pass the Homeless Children Education Act (HCEA) that required the state to provide comprehensive data on homeless student graduation rates. This data-driven approach is already helping advocacy groups and policy makers develop a better picture of how homeless students fare academically compared to their housed peers and which education reforms are needed to better support homeless students.

The McKinney-Vento Act alone cannot guarantee education continuity. The few schools that are able to hire full-time liaisons cannot fully address the biggest need of homeless students: safe and stable housing.  When the bell rings, kids should be concerned about homework, not working to find a home.



The Hunger and Child Care Connection

All parents of young children know that getting kids to eat healthy meals and snacks can be a near-constant battle, especially when toddlers begin exerting their newly-discovered free will. But for families that are barely getting by – working long hours for too low wages – simply providing their children with three meals a day is a financial hardship and logistical nightmare. Millions of these kids would have an even more difficult time accessing meals if it weren’t for the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), a federal program which provides snacks and meals to more than 3 million children at child care centers, family day care homes, Head Start programs, after-school programs, and homeless shelters.

While hunger is difficult for any family to endure, those with very young children seem to be the hardest hit. Researchers estimate that half of all children under age 3 live in low-income or poor households. The challenge of finding child care that is both trustworthy and affordable makes it all the more difficult for parents who are trying to work their way out of poverty.  For families with employed mothers living in poverty and making child care payments, 36 percent of the family’s monthly income is spent on child care.

As a result of these high costs, too many families are forced to choose between child care, meals, and other basic necessities.  But the CACFP indirectly subsidizes child care by providing healthy meals and snacks for young children at care facilities. By providing these resources, the tradeoffs that most low-income families make in securing child care become a little easier to manage.

Too many families are forced to choose between child care, meals, and other basic necessities.

Given that child care is now more expensive than in-state college tuition in many states, the affordability of quality child care should be the prime focus of any CACFP reform effort. The law that authorizes this program – which served nearly 2 billion meals last year, mostly to young children – is scheduled to expire this September. As Congress considers the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, it marks an opportunity to renew and strengthen our public investment in quality child care and education. The CACFP not only makes quality child care more affordable for countless families, it also encourages school readiness for children who are at the greatest risk of developmental delays – health outcomes that are often connected to frequent hunger and food insecurity.

A few key changes to CACFP would allow the program to reach more children and families who need to access these benefits. Current reimbursement rates for the sites providing the meals are inadequate and out of step with rising food costs, especially as quality child care centers strive to serve healthier meals. Moreover, since many parents are now working longer and nontraditional hours, the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act should allow three meals per day to be reimbursed by the CACFP, instead of the current two meals.

Administrative procedures also need to be updated. Congress should reform the CACFP area eligibility test so that more sites are able to participate in the program. Further, we should recognize that CACFP is the direct point of contact between government and our most vulnerable young citizens, and use the program to ensure safe child care settings that promote best practices.

By taking these modest steps we can expect to see more accessible, affordable, quality child care centers. And if parents can count on these programs to keep their kids healthy and secure, they’re better able to work and support their families.

Editor’s note: To learn more, read How the Child and Adult Care Food Program Improves Early Childhood Education”.