On June 11, the Netroots Nation Convention kicked off in Philadelphia. One of the largest gatherings of progressive activists, volunteers, and leaders in the country, the five-day event started with a series of smaller pre-conferences focused on specific communities. This included DisabilityRoots, which addressed the concerns and needs of disabled communities in the city, state, and country.
The conference opened with a panel by Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group for disabled rights. Specifically, representatives from Liberty Resources pointed out the need to end the institutional bias or the tendency for funding to be focused on nursing homes as a one-size-fits-all approach for disabled and elderly people. The panelists instead pushed for better-funded at-home care, with the Money Follows the Person Grant being a spearhead to help people transition from institutions back into their communities. The grant is a federal program focused on helping states restructure their healthcare systems to allow for transitions from nursing homes to at-home care.
“People being able to live in our communities with the support they need. That’s our goal,” said Liam Dougherty, an activist and supporter of Liberty Resources. At-home care is often associated with more personalized attention, greater independence, and more comfort compared to nursing homes. He pointed out that this transition would also make financial sense, since keeping someone in a nursing home costs twice as much as treating them at home. Despite this, public funding has historically been focused on institutionalization. Latoya Maddox, another panelist with disabilities, shared her own experiences with nursing home life, “I moved in in 2004 and they say ‘you have too much stuff.” They made me give away my things.” After leaving and moving to her own apartment, Maddox said her life improved dramatically. “I have a son, I recently graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree and I’m planning on going for my Master’s.”
The second panel featured representatives from American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT), who presented their proposed bills; the Real Emergency Access for Aging and Disability Inclusion for Disasters Act (REAADI) and Disaster Relief Medicaid Act (DRMA). Both bills are focused on the welfare of the disabled and elderly in times of natural disasters. REAADI focuses on special training and preparation for responders, and DRMA ensures continued access to Medicare services as soon as possible after a disaster. Such actions are especially important in light of the increased number of severe weather events, in which disabled persons are 2-4 times more likely to be critically injured. Both bills have been drafted alongside Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey and were introduced to Congress.
The meeting ended with members from the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities (PCAC) discussing the need for affordable housing within the city and at large. As pointed out by lead organizer Christi Clark, most of the large cities in the country are following a disturbing trend of overpriced living. “We’re seeing it in San Francisco and New York and Boston and we’re trying to stop that from happening here in Philadelphia.” Clark pointed out that this is especially problematic as Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates of any US city, staying at roughly 26 percent of the population even as the national average has decreased. Often, disabled people live at or below the poverty line, meaning more are being forced out of their neighborhoods by skyrocketing rent prices. The Coalition seeks to expand the availability of affordable, accessible housing across the city.
DisabilityRoots was especially important in light of Pennsylvania’s elimination of general assistance starting August 1st. Because so many disabled people live at or below the poverty line and are receiving welfare, the few hundred dollars received through the program can mean the difference between homelessness and making rent. Beyond that, the disabled community remains one of the most vulnerable groups in Pennsylvania and across the country, often being victims of gentrification, institutionalization, and budget cuts without being included in the decisions. Dougherty remarked that this “reflects the social uneasiness with disability” and goes against the Liberty Resources motto of “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
Each group also made a point to explain that both sides of the political spectrum have ignored the disabled community for years, which will play an interesting roll in the upcoming 2020 election. Time magazine noted that turnout among disabled voters increased by 8.5 points in the 2018 midterms, which reversed the previous years stagnant turnout rates. Activist groups, including the American Association of Americans with Disabilities, have been running programs to get disabled people registered to vote and to remove obstacles for disabled voters.