Debriefing: Conference on Disability 2016

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities‘ annual Conference on Disability. As in years past, the conference was a great opportunity to mingle with disability advocates across the state. This year, the Council also took steps to appeal to a larger audience, offering more flexible registration options for professionals (such as attorneys and social workers) and speakers known throughout the nation. This year, the Indiana Statewide Independent Living Council also sponsored an independent living conference track and offered scholarships for people with disabilities.

The night before the actual conference began, I attended the screening of Including Samuel and the discussion with filmmaker (and father of Samuel) Dan Habib. habib_dan_color_pngI tend to think of movie screenings as early-access events; this film is about a decade old, so it felt a little stale. I didn’t learn anything new, and fear that fellow attendees with disabilities related a bit too well with Samuel. Certainly, the film would be helpful to those wanting to learn more about the special education system, including parents of newly diagnosed children and special education teachers. However, I’m not sure I would have ventured out in the December cold to participate in this event had I known what to expect. That being said, Habib was a gracious speaker, and had a special connection with Indiana’s current class of Partners in Policymaking, having participated in the New Hampshire program after Samuel’s diagnosis.

Monday morning’s keynote presentation was given by Jonathan Martinis, an attorney jmartinisperhaps best known for his work in the “Jenny” Hatch case. There, he fought Jenny’s guardian, who was unnecessarily controlling Jenny’s life and limiting her opportunities. Martinis, who now serves as Senior Director for Law and Policy at the Burton Blatt Institute is a proponent of supported decision-making in lieu of guardianships. Supported decision-making enables people with disabilities to pursue self-directed life outcomes and independence, unlike guardianships which constitute the civil death of the ward.

I attended two of Martinis’ Supported Decision-Making from Theory to Practice workshops: Health Care and Life Planning and Special Education and Vocational Rehabilitation. Both were available for continuing legal education credit, and Martinis generously encouraged attorneys in the audience to steal his language for powers of attorney and other legal instruments. Also importantly, Martinis directed audience members with questions to Indiana Disability Rights, the State’s protection and advocacy agency.

My afternoon workshops were presented by Stephanie Woodward, Director of Advocacy at the Center on Disability Rights. Woodward came from New York to encourage Indiana’s
woodwardadvocates to get more aggressive, and shared a number of tools people with disabilities can use to promote community change. On a lighter note, Woodward also thanked everyone for being a friend, leading the audience in multiple singings of the Golden Girls theme song.

Woodward’s Encouragements continue the following morning, when she was joined by  Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement Maria Town. The two discussed their respective roles as activist-demonstrator and activist-on-the-inside. I was pleased that m_townmoderator Amber O’Haver asked my questions about the victories and failures of the Obama Administration, hopes and fears about the Trump Administration, and  tips for advocating for the Disability Integration Act. I also enjoyed listening to Woodward and Town given their inside perspective as people with disabilities; they felt authentic.

The final major presentation was by Dr. Ruthie-Marie Beckwith, author of the intriguing book Disability Servitude: From Peonage to Poverty. (Yes, it is the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased for “pleasure” reading.) Beckwith’s presentation was especially riveting in that Indiana is currently home about 40 sheltered workshops. Beckwith was clear in beckwithconcluding that people with disabilities have historically been treated terribly in sheltered workshops and other institutions where labor is not remunerated equitably, and multiple people expressed discomfort with the presentation. Personally, I was glad to see that so many people were uncomfortable – Indiana needs to innovate and offer people with disabilities alternative employment opportunities that permit them competitive wages within their community.

Of course, the Conference would not be complete without a few words from me! My colleague, Bonnie Bomer, and I gave a workshop following Dr. Beckwith’s presentation entitled “A State That Works… For Subminimum Wage.” Our workshop was the first time Indiana Disability Rights released data collected during its sheltered workshop site visits occurring across the state in Summer 2016. We got a lot of great feedback, and anticipate sharing the data with others again soon.

I’m already looking forward to 2017’s Conference on Disability. What are your ideas for themes, workshops, and presenters?

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