Hurricane Irma: Two Things Helping Professionals Need to Know About People with Disabilities

Photo: AP

The state of Florida has called for 17,000 volunteers to help out with the post-Irma recovery process, but there’s one population that are often forgotten in the crush of storm evacuation and disaster recovery efforts, and that is people with disabilities.

Recently, at a social work conference, I was told “disability is not a social work issue,” which is a shocking statement, given that over one-fifth of the United States’ population has a disability according to the Centers for Disease Control. All too often, people with disabilities are left feeling invisible in our society – and as helping professionals, we need to right this wrong. In order to begin to do this work, especially given the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey on our country, here are two things helping professionals need to know about people with disabilities.

Storms such as Irma and Harvey are very likely to have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities – see Professor Rabia Belt’s commentary on this topic. During Hurricane Katrina and surely many others, it came to light that many people with disabilities were unable to evacuate due to mobility limitations, equipment needs, staffing needs, requirements for service animals or just having a low income.

We know that people with disabilities are much more likely to live in poverty in this country, and this can really take a toll during storm evacuations and disaster recovery. In fact, during Katrina, 155,000 people with disabilities aged 5 and up lived in the cities hardest hit by the storm – and unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of Katrina’s fatalities involved this population. Helping professionals need to see people with disabilities – and seek them out prior to, during and after a storm.

Given these realities, it is important to design disaster preparedness and recovery efforts so that they are accessible to all – including people with disabilities in keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the disability community, stories about people with mobility limitations, nursing needs, and service animals being refused shelter or assistance are making the rounds. We must do better.

The National Council on Disability wrote an extensive report on the topic of disaster preparedness, and it provides great guidance for disaster planning and recovery efforts – be prepared! There is also specialized guidance on how to create accessible programs and spaces for people with disabilities during and after a devastating storm in a way that promotes self-determination.

People with disabilities do not want to be victims, and helping professionals should support their self-determination during evacuations, sheltering and recovery. Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, an organization based in the southern United States, is the go-to source for assistance with people with disabilities during these storms. Please use their hotline for assistance with your clients with disabilities 1-800-626-4959.

Their motto is drawn from the disability civil rights movement, “nothing about us without us.” As you gear up to provide help before, during and after these storms, keep this motto in mind and let it guide your practice. We can do better for people with disabilities, and we will.

Federal Contract Workers with Disabilities Included In Minimum Wage Executive Order

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Pres. Obama 1Recently, President Obama signed an executive order to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers.  This action will benefit individuals who are contracted with the federal government who are making less than this newly approved rate.  (The current minimum wage rate is $7.25 an hour.)  The minimum wage hike for federal workers will become effective on January 1st, 2015.  Raising the minimum wage coincides with the President’s plans to increase opportunities for the American people.

When the President announced his executive order concerning the minimum wage increase during his State of the Union Address last month, there were one particular group who were left out of his initiative – federal workers with disabilities.  The White House and the Department of Labor did not intend to allow people with disabilities working under federal contracts with special certificates to receive the new minimum wage increase.  The failure to include people with disabilities who work for the federal government was met with great opposition, and those within the disability community advocated for federal workers with disabilities to be included in the President’s order.

Under the current law, federal workers with disabilities may be paid less than the $7.25/hour rate under specialized certificate programs.  This means that it is legal to pay federal workers with disabilities incredibly less than their able-bodied colleagues, even though they are doing the same job.  The current provision creates a disproportionate living wage gap between disabled and able-bodied federal contracted workers.  Without the inclusion of people with disabilities in the President’s order, certain disabled workers would have continued to earn a living wage as little as 22 cents an hour.

With the unemployment rate for people with disabilities being 13.3%, and the labor force participation rate being 18.2% for January 2014, it is imperative for the employability of people with disabilities to be on the consciousness of the President, and our representatives.  Despite being the largest minority group in the country, people with disabilities are not fully integrated within our workforce system, even though there are a great number of programs and services in place to increase employment opportunities for this population.  This “oversight” by the White House and the Labor Department before disability advocates ramped their voices signaled how dire it is for people with disabilities to be politically aware, and involved.

This executive order is a steppingstone in the right direction to increase the minimum wage for all Americans, but what can be done to ensure that people with disabilities are not overlooked or dismissed when future plans are constructed to improve the well-being and economic status of those in this country?  How can we better advocate for ourselves, and demand that those with influence take our needs and concerns seriously?  Share your thoughts and suggestions with me because excluding people with disabilities from momentous initiatives such as this can no longer suffice.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Black Enterprise.)

Oklahoma Restaurant Owner Refuses to Serve Minorities, Gays, & Disabled Customers

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

In Enid, Oklahoma, outrage has spurred over claims that a restaurant owner refuses to serve those with disabilities, African Americans, Latinos, and those who are LGBTQ.  Gary James, the man behind the controversy, has proclaimed that he has the right to deny service how he sees fit.

James is the owner of Gary’s Chicaros, a restaurant and bar that has been in business for over four decades.  James’ establishment has acquired a reputation due to his views about certain groups, and his discriminatory practices against members within those groups.

Person Holding Knife & ForkMatt Gard was a patron at James’ restaurant for years, and was well aware of James’ views about certain groups.  Gard had ignored James’ antics until he found himself a victim of his bigotry.  Gard stated that he was recently denied service at the restaurant because he is a person with a disability.

James claims that Gard caused a scene, which is why he is no longer welcomed at his establishment.  Gard shared his experience on a Facebook page where over 140 people had left comments about James’ discriminatory conduct.

I wanted to share a few statements James provided for an interview on KFOR-TV News Channel 4 in Oklahoma City.  From his statements, James stands steadfastly behind his actions, and is unapologetic about his views:

I’ve been in business 44 years.  I think I can spot a freak or a “f-word.”  [Offensive gay slur]

I don’t deal with these people walking down the street with no jobs on welfare.

If I reached over there and slapped the s**t out of you, you should be offended.  But to call someone a “c-word” [offensive racial slur] or someone call me a bigot, that doesn’t bother me.

I really don’t want gays around.  Any man that would compromise his own body would compromise anything.

Well if you work, you own a business, pay your taxes, you’re more than welcome here.  If you’re on welfare, stay at home and spend my money, there.

(Excerpts from KFOR-TV’s interview with Gary James.)

Learning about this story perturbed me not because a person with a disability was discriminated against, but the mere fact that Matt Gard, and countless others, had failed to challenge James’ offensive practices for years.  It upset me that Gard finally took a stand when he was targeted by James.  Regardless of your racial, ability, gender, or orientation background, when one person or group is targeted, we are ALL affected by the ills of hatred and discrimination.

When we chose to ignore or remain silent in the face of bigotry, our inaction sends the message that the offender has our support. The failure to take proactive measures does not just occur in small towns like Enid, they occur throughout our nation.  We cannot continue to support individuals or businesses who openly offend one or several groups of people.  It is our responsibility to report such incidences and refuse to spend our money at those establishments; those kind of acts speak volumes, and cannot be ignored by the violators.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of Pimphop.)

Disability.gov Resource Guides for People with Disabilities

Let’s start the new year by educating and informing ourselves of the invaluable resources that are available to people with disabilities in the United States.  Disability.gov, the federal government’s one-stop access website for disability-related resources, services, and information, has a plethora of guides that breaks down topics that matter those with disabilities, caregivers and families, and helping professionals who interact with this particular population.

Disability.gov Logo 1With a new year comes new goals and dreams on how to improve one’s quality of life and livelihood.  Disability.gov’s guides answer many of the most frequently asked questions surrounding how does one become eligible for disability benefits, where job training services are located in one’s community, as well as being informed about the housing assistance programs that those with disabilities can utilize.

The Disability.gov’s guide to disability benefits answers many burning questions about what is considered a “disability” by the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) criteria; the differences between SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and SSI (Social Supplemental Income); what to do if your disability claim is denied; the programs that exist to assist people with disabilities who desire to return to work; and a host of other imperative subjects that matter to those who are seeking benefits.  From personal experience, it can feel as if you are on a wild goose chase when seeking such answers when it comes to learning about your benefits; Disability.gov has done the work for you by providing detailed information on obtaining and maintaining the benefits that you may qualify for.

The guide to employment broaches such matters regarding the online job searching tools that can be helpful in finding employment opportunities; the new job trend of telecommuting, or working from home; how one’s disability benefits may be affected once employed; the legal rights of a prospective employee with a disability; etc.  As the unemployment rate of people with disabilities rose to 12.3% in November 2013, and the labor force participation fell to 19.6%, the issues of seeking employment, sustaining employment, and figuring out how to keep one’s benefits (if possible) are undeniably on the consciousness of those with disabilities who want to earn a living.

The guide to housing provides details as to how to find an affordable place to live; what resources are available to make your living quarters accessible for your needs; advice on buying or renting a property; programs that can assist in paying rent; your housing rights as a person with a disability; and so forth.  Obtaining an apartment, home, or form of housing is an empowering moment for a person with a disability.  It means that you have a place and space to call your own, and this thrusts the door of independence wide open.

Disability.gov’s getting help in your community guide has information about programs and organizations in your area that provide key services and support when it comes to health care, resources for families in need of temporary financial assistance, and receiving aid to pay home heating bills (which is greatly needed during this time of year).  This guide is especially useful for those who live in rural areas who may be unfamiliar with what is available to them outside of their town or county.  This particular guide can also come in handy for social workers and other helping professionals when trying to locate appropriate resources for the clients they serve.

These guides are just a few options offered by Disability.gov that are available with just a click of the mouse.  Review the “Guide Me” link to search for the information that pertains to your, or someone you know, specific needs.  2014 can be the year people with disabilities arm themselves with vital knowledge that will empower and enhance the well-being of their lives.  Are you familiar with similar resources or guides that people with disabilities can employ in 2014?  Share them with me, and I may feature your suggestion(s) in a future article on Social Work Helper.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Disability Blog.)

AbleRoad: New Technology Connecting People to Accessible Venues

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Hotel Sign 1AbleRoad is a new technological tool that aims to inform people with disabilities about accessible places and spaces in their communities, and across the globe.  With the advances of the internet and the worldwide use of social media, new websites and applications (apps) are created every day to assist in establishing a more equal playing field for people with disabilities, both domestically and abroad.  As a person with a disability, I am constantly searching for innovative tools that makes inclusion of people with disabilities a high priority.

AbleRoad is a tool that people with disabilities can use to become apprised about the accessible public businesses in their area, based on the reviews provided by others with disabilities, their families, and caregivers.  AbleRoad is founded by Kevin G. McGuire, a wheelchair user who knows first-hand the challenges of finding accessible locations when travelling within and outside of his community.  AbleRoad allows reviewers to rate venues based on wheelchair/mobility accessibility, and ease of access for people with varying degrees of visual, hearing, and cognitive impairments.  When a review is provided, AbleRoad makes the information public on its website where others can read the experiences of those with similar disabilities who have visited the venues.  Creating a space where people with disabilities can share such experiences with one another makes it easier to research the accessibility of a business beforehand.  Having this prior knowledge eliminates the possibility of becoming frustrated when arriving at a venue that has no disability accommodations or very poor accommodations available.  AbleRoad is also connected with Yelp, so those who use the website or AbleRoad’s mobile app can view the ratings provided on both Yelp and AbleRoad.

The idea behind the creation of AbleRoad is pure genius.  As more and more people with disabilities are travelling within and outside their countries, knowing which places are accessible and which ones to avoid is invaluable information to have at one’s fingertips.  As a wheelchair user, I am always researching businesses to discover if they have access before I make plans to patronize them.  Even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that outlines the importance of accessibility and providing reasonable accommodations for people of all abilities, there are many businesses that are non-compliant with the law and/or have the minimum accommodations available that makes it more challenging than helpful to feel included when travelling or enjoying a night out with family and friends.

Another great advantage of this resource is that it informs businesses about how much of an aid or hindrance the accommodations that currently exists are to people with disabilities.  Businesses should not view negative reviews provided on AbleRoad’s website as a threat to their business; instead, such reviews can be considered as valuable insight as to how to improve the experiences of all people who seek out their venue to fulfill a particular purpose.  Having such knowledge allows businesses to make the appropriate changes to be more accessible, and businesses are encouraged to respond to negative reviews and discuss how the barriers to accessibility were remedied.

This is only one resource that has been established for people with disabilities who are always on the go.  Are there similar tools like AbleRoad available that you are aware of?  If so, share them with me so that I can spotlight their significance in the fight to bridge the gap in accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities in our society.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of The Guardian.)

The Fight for More Accessible Taxis Was Won In New York City

Wheelchair Accessible Taxi 1
New York City Taxis


Accessible taxis will now become a reality for those with disabilities in New York City as the city agreed to make 50% of its taxi fleet accessible by 2020.  The battle to create more accessible taxi transportation services for those with disabilities has existed for years. In 2011, four disability advocacy groups decided to file a class-action lawsuit against the city for its failure to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) policy regarding public transportation.  Mayor Bloomberg’s administration had repeatedly denied being non-compliant when it came to providing appropriate accessible public transportation options to wheelchair users.

The agreement reached earlier this month regarding transportation accessibility outlines that half of the city’s 13,000+ yellow cabs must be accessible to people with disabilities in six years.  As of the time of this article, only 231 of the city’s 13,237 in-service taxicabs are wheelchair accessible.  Though the city did implement a dispatch program in June 2012 that allows wheelchair users to request the few available accessible taxis, this service alone does not ameliorate the transportation barrier that plague wheelchair users.  Given the national and international appeal of the Big Apple, it is unacceptable that 1.75% of New York City’s yellow taxicabs are currently wheelchair accessible.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission will pass regulations that will require cab owners to purchase wheelchair accessible taxicabs when it is time for them to replace or retire the taxicabs that are currently in use.  (Most taxicabs have a lifespan of three to five years, taking into consideration of how they are utilized.)  This landmark deal demands that half of all new yellow cabs that are obtain in any given year to be wheelchair accessible, until the 50% goal is achieved.

Winning this battle for transportation accessibility is a key moment in the disability rights and advocacy movement.  When disability advocates and allies band together to demand equality and justice for those with disabilities, especially when it is clearly outlined in a pivotal piece of federal legislation such as the ADA, our lawmakers cannot continue to ignore such united voices for what is right and just.  New York City is not the only city in the United States where the war for appropriate transportation options has been waged.  Transportation is a huge barrier that people with disabilities endure in rural and urban areas alike.  Not having access to appropriate transportation options unfairly disadvantages people with disabilities when it comes to attaining educational and employment opportunities, as well as hinders their ability to become independent members within their communities.

Many people are unaware of how serious the impact of a lack of accessible transportation can negatively affect one’s quality of life and gaining the opportunities to be productive, sociable, and self-sufficient members in our society.  It is erroneous to assume that policies regarding accessible transportation are being properly adhered to within our cities and towns.  I urge everyone who reads this article to research the accessible transportation options in their area.  If you find ADA-related compliance issues, write and/or call your local, state, and federal representatives.  It is only when we bring such disparities to their attention that empowering change(s) will occur.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of NMEDA.)

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