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Hundreds Attend Disability Awareness Day

March 3, 2017

The Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights held Disability Awareness Day at the State House on March 2, and it was a huge success. Almost 400 people gathered to help spread this message to lawmakers: “Break Barriers; Build Bridges.”

VCDR President Ed Paquin said, “Vermonters with Disabilities and the Deaf Community in Vermont recognize the stark divisions creating so much tension in America today. Our goal is to join with others to build bridges that will bring us together and help eliminate barriers to full inclusion. VCDR greatly enjoyed celebrating our common humanity on Disability Awareness Day 2017 as we do our part to strengthen our bridges with Vermont’s legislative policy makers…and each other!”

Disability Awareness Day shone a spotlight on a number of important issues, including the fact some Vermonters with disabilities can now save money in federally tax-advantaged VT-ABLE savings plans; the need to bring wages for individuals who provide support to people with disabilities to a reasonable level; and the fact that funding for rehabilitation services for the blind and visually impaired delivered through the Vermont Association of the Blind & Visually Impaired has not been increased in seven years despite rising caseloads and needs.

Every year the Governor’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities selects 10 to 13 Vermont businesses that hire and retain people with disabilities and honors them with an award. During Disability Awareness Day, previous years’ winners were treated to a professionally moderated discussion examining their “best practices” for hiring and retaining people with disabilities. They were also recognized on the floor of the House.

Another highlight of the day was a panel presentation featuring Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, Department of Disabilities, Aging & Independent Living Commissioner Monica Hutt, Kimberly McSweeney of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and self-advocate Mark Utter.

A powerful keynote address was given by Stephanie Woodward, director of advocacy at the Rochester, N.Y.-based Center for Disability Rights, Inc. (CDR) a disability-led, not-for-profit corporation that works for national, state and local systemic change to advance the rights of people with disabilities. Prior to joining CDR, she worked as a litigator in Miami, Fla., focusing on disability rights. Woodward previously worked for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and assisted his Disability Counsel on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions by researching, drafting legislation and making recommendations for legislative action in regards to disability rights issues.

In her keynote, Woodward spoke about how people with disabilities can break barriers and build bridges — a real challenge since sometimes many people don’t even recognize what the barriers are. She said, “There’s this big misconception in society that the barrier that we need to overcome is our disability… We don’t grow up in a society that recognizes that the barriers that we need to overcome are inaccessibility and inequality — that our disabilities are not these conniving creatures trying to bring us down, but we do have structures within our society that are bringing us down.”

The Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights is a cross-disability advocacy organization. VCDR member organizations, staff members and volunteers engage individuals with disabilities and family members in Vermont’s legislative and policy activities, enabling them to have a voice in the administrative and legislative decisions that affect their daily lives and civil rights.

VCDR gratefully acknowledges the support of the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, the Vermont Statewide Independent Living Council and the Center on Disability & Community Inclusion, UVM. Their financial support made the events of the day possible.