“We need to be at the table”: Texans with disabilities worry changes in legislative process during the pandemic could shut them out

Mike Chiari The Texas Tribune

Ricky Broussard has spent 10 legislative sessions advocating for disability rights — more support for Texans with disabilities like him who want to live independently, greater accessibility in transportation and better job training.

Unlike other special interests competing for the attention of lawmakers, he doesn’t rely on a paid lobbyist. The 52-year-old’s greatest message is his own. Broussard, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, spent 29 years in group homes across the state hoping to get off a waitlist before finally receiving state support to live by himself.

Because of the pandemic, access to the state Capitol could be limited this year: Many Texans with disabilities, including Broussard, do not want to risk testifying in person. With uncertain rules on virtual testimony, and at such an urgent and precarious time, many worry pandemic process changes could leave them out of an all-important session focused on managing a virus that has killed people with disabilities at uniquely high rates.

“We need to be at the table, from the beginning all the way through the end, because nobody don’t know me like I know myself,” Broussard said. “But I’m not going to go to the Capitol until I get a shot” — referring to the vaccine.

Instead, advocates for those with disabilities and some lawmakers worry that high-profile lobbyists will have the ears of the policy makers if virtual testimony is limited and in-person visits remain the norm. The clock is running out to find a solution just two weeks from the start of the session. Asked whether Dade Phelan, the presumptive state House speaker, would commit to supporting virtual testimony, which people with disabilities and advocates for disability rights say is critical to them having a voice in government, a Phelan spokesperson, said only the process will be “member-driven.”

The House “encourages public participation and promotes openness and transparency to the fullest extent possible,” said Enrique Marquez, the spokesperson, adding that members will “weigh in and vote upon these matters once the 87th Legislature convenes.”

Advocates worry that a lack of commitment to virtual access could spell trouble.

“Our fear is that legislative leaders will use the pandemic to limit access,” said Dan Quinn, the research director and press secretary for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit social justice organization. “We can’t let people just disappear here in the middle of a pandemic. They have to be heard. They have a right to be heard.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.

Many disability rights groups and Texans with disabilities, wary of risking COVID-19 exposure, said they won’t go to the Capitol in person this year. So in-person meetings between Texans with disabilities and lawmakers, large demonstrations and informal chats over organized breakfasts, all of which regularly occur in most years, may not happen this session.

But Quinn and other advocates hope to see the Legislature allow remote testimony, both live and recorded, and provide closed captioning to make hearings as accessible as possible.

The Arc of Texas, a disability rights organization, usually holds massive rallies on the steps of the Capitol to show its strength in numbers. That won’t happen this year. Ginger Mayeaux, the public policy director at The Arc, has instead encouraged her members, including Broussard, to reach out to their own representatives to schedule virtual meetings and explain their priorities.

Hearing stories like Broussard’s shows legislators how their policies impact real people, some lawmakers said. State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said emailing is just as influential as a big rally that garners media attention.

“It’s a different feeling than a mass demonstration, but it’s quite powerful,” Zwiener said. “When we get even as little as a dozen emails on the same issue from constituents, that gets our attention.”

These advocates are fighting for issues that affect their daily lives.

Because of a lack of affordable and accessible housing in Texas, many people with disabilities spend upwards of 15 years waiting to get a place of their own, a crucial step. Advocates hope to reduce that gap in housing while eliminating disability-related housing discrimination this session.

People with disabilities are also often relegated to jobs with low pay and low expectations that keep them separate from the rest of the community. “Access to ‘real jobs with real wages’ is essential if citizens with disabilities are to avoid lives of poverty, dependence, and isolation,” the Disability Rights Consortium writes in a policy brief. In a pandemic, that means having the resources to work from home, where possible.

And as Broussard notes, people with disabilities can’t be fully independent if getting on a bus or other public transportation is inaccessible to them and they are relying on others to take them to work or go on errands. He’s fighting to change that.

Both chambers have been in talks for months over how committees should conduct testimony during the legislative session and whether screenings should be in place for people to testify in person. Members have suggested that committees may do a mix of virtual and in-person testimony, though decisions in both the House and Senate have not yet been made.

Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, a member of the House Public Health Committee, said he thinks the Capitol should be open to the public with accommodations, “but any such accommodations and accessibility must be afforded both to people with and without disabilities.”

In usual sessions, thousands descend on the Capitol for various reasons, ranging from school tours to giving testimony. Committee hearing rooms are often overflowing with people, hallways are crowded and concerned Texans could wait more than 10 hours for a chance to speak. In normal times, social distancing would be a challenge.

In his almost 30 years in the Legislature, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he’s learned more from the testimony of regular Texans than anything else.

“Change comes from people seeking redress from their government. And that’s really important, particularly people who can bring lived experience to the decisions that we’re making when it comes to people with disabilities,” said Coleman, a member of the House Public Health Committee.

Current House rules also do not allow for virtual committee hearings, though that could change this session. Regardless of protocols that the House or Senate puts into place, each member still has jurisdiction over office-specific guidelines.

“We would have a lot more concerns if we had any clue what they were going to do,” said Jeff Miller, a policy specialist at Disability Rights Texas.

Miller, who wrote the lawmakers overseeing session logistics a letter earlier this month with recommendations for how to make the session accessible, said those legislators have yet to respond. Miller’s suggestions include opportunities for the public to submit public input and the Legislature continuing to provide accommodations, such as American Sign Language interpretation, upon request.

In the meantime, he said groups throughout the state are planning on helping people with disabilities, if possible, to tune in remotely and provide testimony virtually should they feel it unsafe to go in person.

“Accommodation is what allows someone to be a full citizen,” Coleman said.

It’s important to note, Mayeaux said, that different disabilities mean different accessibility challenges. In addition to having their voices heard, public testimony gives people with disabilities the chance to “dispel myths about individuals with IDD (intellectual or developmental disabilities).”

If only written testimony and in-person testimony is allowed, Broussard would need to rely on someone else to type out his thoughts.

“That would be really difficult for me,” said Broussard, who is hoping to testify by video call. He does “everything” with his right hand, and uses Siri to manage his phone. Written testimony, which he said he could do with support but would make his testimony less meaningful, is just one possible barrier to those with disabilities having their voices heard.

Others might need help setting up their videos and logging on to the virtual hearing room. Some who don’t read or write will need help managing new COVID-19 processes for giving testimony, while others might require a sign language interpreter. And if in-person hearings are moved to larger spaces, Miller hopes they will be to places with enough accessible parking and entrances. But without an open dialogue from legislative leadership, Miller worries some of these precautions might fall by the wayside.

Before the pandemic, Broussard used to travel around the state, speaking at different schools about self-advocacy and self-determination for people with disabilities.

Now, like so many others, he is working from home in his apartment in Texas City, a port city near Galveston, as a peer leader for Imagine Enterprises, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities, where he speaks to others with disabilities about the importance of self-advocacy.

Over 20 years of self-advocacy at the Capitol, Broussard has gotten to know lawmakers personally, urging them to help solve the issues that continue to make the life of so many with disabilities harder than it needs to be. In 2013, House Bill 617, nicknamed Ricky’s Law after Broussard, was passed after he testified about the importance of helping students with disabilities transition to work after high school.

He wants people to know that their voice counts, and hopes the Legislature makes that possible, even in the pandemic.

“We always need to be at the table when you’re making big decisions,” Broussard said, directing his request toward lawmakers. “Because you’re making big decisions about our lives.”

Disclosure: The Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.