Friday, March 23, 2012

Mad Props

The top definition in the Urban Dictionary for "mad props" goes like this:

"mad" = extreme; "props" = support (in a congratulatory sense)
Mad props to the creator of this site!

In Wisconsin, mad props are due to a dedicated contingent of disability advocates who've been working on various legislative initiatives that were decided this month in the Capitol. It seems almost strange to have so much to celebrate on the disability-advocacy front in Wisconsin, in a year when so many things have careened in such a miserable direction. But it's true -- and it was bi-partisan, too!

I wrote in greater detail on four big legislative wins in a piece on Daily Kos earlier this week, but here's the short version:

Big Win #1: We managed to halt a cash-grab of a bill, a terribly-flawed school voucher program written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and called the Special Needs Scholarship Program Act. I wrote about it on Elvis Sightings back in May and July last year.

Big Win #2: The legislature lifted the caps on enrollment in Wisconsin's long-term care programs, fixing a serious problem that had been created by Gov. Walker's 2011/2013 budget. I've been active on this one too; wrote a personal take here called Freezing the Future last spring when the caps were imposed.

Big Win #3: The legislature passed a bill limiting and regulating the use of seclusion and restraint in public schools, an issue that falls disproportionately on students with disabilities. The vote was unanimous in both chambers!

Big Win #4: The legislature passed the People First bill, updating terminology in Wisconsin statute such that the outdated & pejorative "mental retardation" will be replaced with "intellectual disability." Another unanimous bipartisan win -- down with the "R-word"!

My Wisconsin Partners in Policymaking class had our fingerprints all over these. Many of us had been involved in one or more of these initiatives for years! Now that we were organized as a class, we went into high gear during the last month of the legislative session: testifying, organizing, and writing and calling and lobbying our legislators in person.

When we met last Friday just after a week of all these wins becoming official, we were ready to celebrate! Mad props to every last person in the group! To our great delight, we received an invitation as a group to attend the bill-signing event in Milwaukee in which Governor Walker was to sign Big Wins #2-4 into law! About half of our class were able to attend. (I didn't make it, but was there in spirit -- while hand-delivering thank-you letters at the Capitol to legislators on both sides of the aisle.)

Our training last weekend focused on the ins and outs of the legislative process that we'd just experienced so powerfully, with lessons and role-plays on communicating with law-makers, and how to craft a winning message on our issues. One dominant theme was the importance of a nonpartisan approach. We heard again and again that our issues transcend party lines; that there are disability champions on the right as well as on the left; that we need both parties on our side no matter who's in power.

That's a challenging lesson to internalize at this point in Wisconsin history. I've proudly staked out a personal partisan stance in full-throated opposition to what's been wreaked on Wisconsin from the right this past year. And yet, my Partners in Policymaking family (it's really starting to feel that way) has a range of partisan leanings. I was one of three Partners who sat for hours waiting to testify against the voucher-bill before the Senate Education Committee, sitting in solidarity on this issue right next to a colleague whose political leanings are quite different than mine.

I was tempted at that hearing to rail against the corporatist, cash-grab ALEC roots of the voucher bill, something that Rep. Mark Pocan (D) did very effectively later in the Assembly when the bill came to the floor. However, I resisted the urge and kept my remarks focused on Joy and on the substance of the legislation. Having done so, I was then able to take a thank-you letter to the office of the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee, and have a cordial and productive conversation with the clerk who had staffed the hearing for him.

I don't know who in our Partners group has signed the recall petition, but I know that it didn't really matter when it came time for people to decide whether or not to attend the bill-signing ceremony. The importance of the legislative victories FAR outweighed any political point-scoring maneuvers. We were enjoined to keep the date & time of the signing a secret such that political protest would not overshadow the content of our victories, and we all did so. After all, it takes a governor to sign a bill into law, and we've got the governor that we've got, not the governor that some of us might wish to have!

Being present at the signing was a powerful experience for my Partners colleagues, as evidenced in post-signing blogging -- there were a ton of photos and stories on Facebook as well. It was jarring and dis-heartening after the ceremony, then, to learn that a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin had made the following statement to a news reporter about Governor Walker and the event:

"It’s pretty shocking that he’s using a community that he’s almost ground underfoot in this budget as props, as he’s seeking recall here."

Props. The spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin thinks that all those incredibly hard-working, politically-savvy, overwhelmingly-committed disability advocates at the bill-signing were nothing more than mindless props for Governor Walker.

We're not props. And being called props makes us... well, MAD.

Both I and another Partners colleague wrote letters to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, pointing out the error of the spokesman's ways.

We need to work with both parties, celebrate what both parties do right, and hold them accountable for what they don't.

And with that, I promise that the next post will be much more Joy-centric! Because that's what all this policy stuff is about. It's about people, and making better lives for all of us.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Not So Lucky As All That

Last November I wrote a post with the title Lucky, wherein Rose and I discussed how much things had changed from when I was in elementary school and kids with disabilities didn't get educated in the same schools as their typically-developing peers, if they got to go to school at all.

Her priceless summation of the situation:
It's so lucky for Joy's class that they get to know her and have her in school with them!

Those words are haunting me just now, as we're thinking ahead to next year with IEP-ing and with filling out questionnaires that will inform how next year's classes get assembled.

You see, although students with disabilities at Rose & Joy's elementary school are educated in classrooms with typically-developing classmates, it's not spread out evenly across the school. The school practices "clustering," whereby the kids with IEPs all get assigned into just one or two classrooms per grade, so that the special-ed staff can focus there and collaborate with just one or two regular-ed teachers. (A similar thing happens with students for whom English is a second language).

What ends up happening is that the ratio of disability to non-disability in the cluster-classes gets pretty far out of whack in comparison to the real world. Any behavior issues associated with the disabilites end up concentrated too -- and multiplying upon one another. And it can leave some folks thinking that students with and without disabilities really shouldn't mix, because look at all the problems that arise!!

It also means that Rose is not so lucky as all that.

Like her mother 40 years before... Rose has never been in a homeroom class with a student who has a significant developmental disability.

Just now, that feels incredibly unlucky to me.