In 2016 DIG Builds Partnerships at the INTERSECTION of Domestic Violence and Disability
In 2016, one of DIG’s greatest accomplishments was becoming part of the solution for the serious problem of access to domestic violence and sexual assault services for persons with disabilities. We did this by spending the year building partnerships with three organizations that are the pillars in our community for serving victims of abuse. They are MUJER ( Mujeres Unidas en Justicia,Educacion,y Reforma, inc.) CVAC ( Coordinated Victim assistance Center of Miami Dade County), and Dade Legal Aid.
With a grant from the Office of Violence Against Women, US Dept. Of Justice (only 6 awarded in the country) we spent this year creating a Charter that will direct our work together for the next two years.
One organization can never offer all the services victims/survivors with disabilities need when experiencing violence and abuse. With funding so scarce, it is almost impossible for one organization to serve everyone and offer all services. That is why the only solution is creative and meaningful collaborations. The Miami Inclusion Alliance (MIA)’ that we formed this year, is such a collaboration. The four of us have come together to forge a partnership that will lead to a safer, more accessible system of care for victims who are persons with disabilities. This partnership will allow each of us to expand our understanding of victims/survivors’ needs and combine our resources to create a system of services that is more complete and integrated.
What Can Be Achieved when you build the right Collaboration? NEW and CREATIVE SOLUTIONS
To do that you must:
- Involve the right organizations and people.
- Learn about each organization.
- Create a shared mission and vision, and shared values.
- Develop clear expectations regarding roles and responsibilities.
- Determine how best to work together.
- Keep safety and access at the forefront.
- Dedicate sufficient time and resources to the collaboration. *
That is what we have done in 2016 and we look forward to even more important work in 2017.
By: Lesly Lopez
To be eligible for disability benefits, a person must be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA). A person who is earning more than a certain monthly amount (net of impairment related work expenses) is ordinarily considered to be engaging in SGA. The amount of monthly earnings considered as SGA depends on the nature of a person’s disability. The Social Security Act specifies a higher SGA amount for statutorily blind individuals; Federal regulations specify a lower SGA amount for non-blind individuals. Both SGA amounts generally change with changes in the national average wage index.
Substantial Gainful amounts for 2017 are:
For statutorily blind individuals for 2017 is $1,950.
For non-blind individuals, the monthly SGA amount for 2017 is $1,170.
What is Substantial Gainful Activity anyway?
Social Security Definition of Disability: To meet our definition of disability, you must not be able to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) because of a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment(s):
That is expected to result in death, or that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.
We use the term “substantial gainful activity” to describe a level of work activity and earnings. Work is “substantial” if it involves doing significant physical or mental activities or a combination of both. For work activity to be substantial, it does not need to be performed on a full-time basis. Work activity performed on a part-time basis may also be SGA. “Gainful” work activity is:
Work performed for pay or profit; or Work of a nature generally performed for pay or profit; or Work intended for profit, whether or not a profit is realized.
We use SGA as one of the factors to decide if you are eligible for disability benefits. If you receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, we use SGA to decide if your eligibility for benefits continues after you return to work and complete your Trial Work Period
-Substantial Gainful Activity (Social Security Administration) https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/sga.html
-Social Security Administration. 2017 Red Book: How we define disability? 2017 edition.
By Matthew Dietz
Many people have a gut response to this question. Jessica Cox filed an administrative complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations claiming that she was excluded from every single ride at Universal Studios Orlando because she was born without arms, and she was not able to continually grasp the restraints with at least one hand. Jessica believed that the restrictions on all of the rides were not based on actual risks, but instead, based upon stereotypes of what she can or cannot do.
Jessica is a classic overachiever in every sense of the word, and in relation to any person, able bodied or disabled. She is the first armless person in aviation history to earn a pilot’s certificate, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a psychology degree from the University of Arizona, and motivational speaker. She also does everything that “typical normates” can do, other than, according to her doctor, brush her hair. She is the unstoppable force, and does not take “can’t” or “no” as an answer. (https://www.jessicacox.com/ )
So when this unstoppable force went to Universal Studios, she thought she thought she was going to have clear skies, but instead, she ran into turbulence. According to Jessica Cox’s blog (http://www.handicap-international.us/jessica_cox_blog ):
Patrick and I were in Florida for the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival in November. We had an extra day, so we decided to go to Universal Orlando because we both love theme park rides. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of going on rides at Universal Studios Hollywood with my brother and sister. I loved the E.T. Adventure and Jurassic Park rides and seeing Jaws on the Studio Tour.
That morning, we were so excited that we were there 30 minutes before opening. At the gate was a sign that said, “People with Disabilities, Go to Guest Services,” so we made our way there as soon as the gate opened.
At Guest Services, they issued me a special disability pass and a rider’s guide for people with disabilities. Without any discussion, we took these, and made our way to the first ride, the “Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit” roller coaster. The Rider’s Guide, as well as Universal Studios’ website, had the following notes on the ride:
“This ride employs safety restraints which may not accommodate certain people due to their body shape or size”. It went on to describe a number of requirements including that the rider be able to “continuously grasp with at least one upper extremity.”
When we arrived at the ride, it was obvious from the seat display that the mentioned restrictions applied to my particular condition of being armless, and so I insisted that Patrick go on the ride while I waited for him on a nearby bench. “I’ll just go on the next one,” I thought to myself.
I was mistaken. As we looked at the rider’s guide, we became increasingly dismayed. We checked the rides one by one, and discovered that seemingly every single one, even the gentle kiddie rides, were deemed unsuitable for a person like me.
We were excited when we saw that the “Shrek 4-D” ride listed no restrictions for amputees. Shrek 4-D is a theater-style ride described in the rider’s guide as “involving loud noises, strobes, fog effects, and sudden movement, which could aggravate certain medical conditions. Stationary seating is available…” Finally, I would get my chance. As we waited in line, an attendant came up to me and told me that I had to sit on a stationary seat in the front row. Without arguing, we made our way to the front row and I sat on a stationary seat. When the ride was finished, Patrick turned to me and said he could not understand why I could not be in a moving seat considering how simple the movement was. There was not even a seatbelt in the moving seats.
We decided to pay Guest Services a visit, and asked to speak to the manager. A lady told us that she would be happy to refund the price of our tickets and register our concerns in their computer system. At that point, the manager walked over, and I explained that my main frustration is not just about the restrictions.
I understood that these are manufacturer-imposed restrictions and that the theme park could not do anything about that. I was frustrated that the theme park was being advertised as a welcoming environment when my experience of being excluded just demonstrated that it is not. People like me would benefit from being better informed about the park’s policies on disabilities so that we could find better use of our time. Not knowing that I could not go on the rides, I chose to spend my one free day Florida at Universal Orlando, only to find out—after paying for tickets and entering the park—that I would be sitting on a bench the whole time.
I fully understand that safety is, as it should be, the utmost priority. It is understandable that I am restricted from a roller coaster ride, but there was really no reason for me to be kept from a moving seat in a theater. Due to the park’s broad restrictions, I was effectively discriminated against. How is it possible to be in a country that will allow a woman without arms to fly an airplane and yet be prevented from going on amusement park rides?
I felt ignored, unseen, not taken into account. I know from experience that this often how people with disabilities in developing countries feel, but it was jarring to feel this way in the U.S. in 2015.
At Universal, I was no longer the first armless pilot who flies a plane with her feet. I was back on the playground at my pre-school, standing on the sidelines, watching the other kids play. I remembered wanting so much to do everything else the other children were allowed to do. I wanted to climb up that 12-foot slide that towered high above everything else, but the playground monitors were afraid I would fall off the ladder. I wanted to run as fast as I could but everyone told me to slow down. They wanted to protect me, but they limited me.
Considering how much the advocacy for people with disabilities has grown, it is disheartening to note that the evolution in this particular case has been towards exclusion rather than inclusion. I am saddened to think that children with disabilities born after my generation may never have the magical experience of a theme park ride.
As soon as I was back home, I made a follow-up call to Universal Studios. I was promised that my concerns would be documented, because they are feedback-based company. However, I was also told that their policies are cut and dried and are there for safety reasons. Basically, I was told that nothing could be done.
Last month, Jessica’s story appeared throughout the nation. See http://www.wftv.com/news/9-investigates/woman-without-arms-files-discrimination-complaint-against-universal-orlando/435099189 The news coverage brought out two very different attitudes about whether Jessica could be able to have an opportunity to go on the amusement rides, and there were many comments that demonstrated the general public’s perception of disability:
- If someone without the ability to “continuously grasp” fell out of a ride at Universal you can bet Universal would be sued by that person (if he or she survived) or the surviving loved ones if the person did not survive. … Sometimes you just have to face the fact that Life is not fair and move on.
- Sorry, but these people need to get over it, they can’t be a police officer or a fire/rescue person either.
- And she would sue if she got injured on the rides. It’s not about what she can and cannot do it’s about how the rides are designed and what a person needs to be able to be safe on the rides.
- As I feel bad for her condition however, there are policies put in place for a reason and bending the rules based on the personal accomplishments of an individual is far more discriminative.
- If she flies a plane, it has been modified. If she has a black belt, the criteria was different to accommodate her. It would be criminal to allow her on a roller coaster. They would have to have a special car made just for those like her. That’s really what the lawsuit is about, through support from ADA shake down lawyers.
- Sorry for the lady, but, she obviously cannot do everything that someone with arms and hands can. Some of those rides generate violent force. Had she gotten hurt she’d be suing for that. We all have our limitations and have to accept them.
- There have been several incidents this summer of people falling out of rides and being killed or injured. Universal Studios has every right to try to minimize its liability. If she got on a ride and was thrown off or fell off, she would be trying to sue Universal! Just because she thinks she can do everything doesn’t mean she can.
- Hun, it sounds like you didn’t give them notice and their policy is very clear. It’s a safety issue. Instead of pulling the discrimination card because according to their policy you have to be able to grasp the harness with an upper extremity aka an arm. Fight for the safety harnesses to be more welcome to others but not discrimination. They were within their right and refunded you
The generalized assumptions are always that there is a reason for the limitations, and if the rationale for the changes are related to safety, then they must have an adequate rationale. Persons with disabilities, like many other minorities, live in a patriarchal system where persons without disabilities attempt to dictate rules and norms. In this way, persons with disabilities, as a class, are no different from other societal classes, such as gender, race, class or caste where the dominant population creates rules or structures to limit the rights of others. So, the underlying question is why – is there a basis for the limitation, or is it merely the stereotypical perceptions of ability. After reviewing the comments above, the same assumptions or statements could be made about a woman who would like to wrestle or play football.
Rides were not always restricted to persons without arms. The restrictions started after 2011, when Sgt. James Hackemer – an Iraq War veteran who lost his legs and one hip in combat — flew out of the “Ride of Steel” at New York’s Darien Lake Theme Park, and died. Authorities said he and a family member checked with the park about safety instructions before he got on the ride. After this accident, theme parks restricted rides to those persons who had both one leg and one hand. The hand was to grasp and hold the restraints. Further, only some of the parks have adopted this limitation, and this limitation is not universal. For example, Disney parks does not have this limitation, and Jessica is able to go on Disney rides without limitations.
The validity of this limitations is suspect when the limitation is questioned. None of these parks have tests to determine the extent of a grip required, and persons who have hands, but limited or no grip, are not barred from going on a ride due to this standard. There are many disabilities where a person is unable to grasp a safety restraint, such as those who have multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy (including ALS), quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, arthritis, or other similar disability which affects the ability to hold on to a restraint device. Further, there are many cognitive disabilities that may hinder someone’s understanding to hold onto the safety restraint, such as a developmental or intellectual disability. Further, even without any disabilities, it is common that many folks do not hold on to the restraints. Lastly, I have never seen a sign at any amusement parks that says “PLEASE HOLD ON TO THE RESTRAINTS!”
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits this type of discrimination by deeming eligibility criteria not shown to be necessary as unlawful, by defining discrimination as:
imposition or application of eligibility criteria that screen out or tend to screen out an individual with a disability or any class of individuals with disabilities from fully and equally enjoying any goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations, unless such criteria can be shown to be necessary for the provision of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations being offered;
Further, providing limitations on safety are also allowed, but the limitations must be based on real risks, and not assumptions or stereotypes. The ADA regulations provide as follows:
(b) Safety. A public accommodation may impose legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation. Safety requirements must be based on actual risks and not on mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities.
According to the safety regulations promulgated by the industry experts, the ASTM standards, the guidelines for restrictions are based on a suitability assessment based on an anthropometric factors that relate age and physical size. This focuses on the measurements of the human body as compared to the design of the ride. For example, rides have seats and restraints that have features such as contours, dividers, bolsters or other forms and shapes that aid in preventing patrons from sliding longitudinally or laterally outside of the restraint area. When a person does not have a body size or shape that does not fit within the designed contours, then that person has a danger of sliding out of the seat.
For a person of short stature, or does not have thighs or hips that can fit within the restraint area, a limitation may be permissible and based on risks. All persons must fit into the restraint area, disabled or able bodied. However, with arms, it may be different.
Each time that I have ever been to an amusement park, I have always seen riders of roller coasters wave their arms in the air like they don’t care. Jessica Cox was featured in the Channel 4 Paralympics “We’re the Superhumans” trailer that has almost seven million views on Youtube https://youtu.be/IocLkk3aYlk . The premise of the video was “Yes I can”. The premise of the Americans with Disabilities Act is that society must tear down barriers that are solely due to prejudice and antiquated attitudes.
Litigation: Siler v. Abbott House Condo
By: Matthew Dietz
Rachel Siler was looking forward to moving to Miami Beach in April 2016. Rachel went to art school in Chicago and after graduating from college she started working in the Independent Living and Disability Rights Movements. Aside from this passion she has also represented the disability community within the Occupy and Anti-war Movements. When she isn’t fighting for social justice she enjoys reading, antiquing and designing.
For the past thirteen years, she had lived in cold and windy Chicago working at Chicago’s Access Living, assisting people with disabilities and a coordinator of Chicago ADAPT, an organization that has dedicated disability rights activists that engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom. She found a job as an independent living specialist at the Center for Independent Living of South Florida and was ready to move to sunny Miami Beach.
As a wheelchair user herself, Rachel knew what she needed in order to live independently in Miami Beach. She needed to live near to public transportation, a safe surrounding area, a building with an elevator, a residence that was affordable and accessible, and adequate green space so that her service animal, Minty could be walked. Before moving down to Florida, she visited the area and hired a real estate agent. During her visit, she looked at eight residences. However, none these residences met her needs. When she returned home, the agent sent Rachel information about a condominium on Miami Beach at Abbot House Condominum, and it was perfect – one of the largest homes that she ever lived in.
She entered in to the lease with the owner of the condominium, and was told that a condition of moving in was physically meeting with the condominium association board screening committee and receiving written approval. This was only supposed to be a formality. So, Rachel spoke with the property manager, received permission to move her belongings in on May 21st, and packed and started the trek across the United States with her mother and a friend.
When Rachel came to Miami on May 20th, with her personal assistant, she did not get the reception that she was expecting. The association manager met her and was shocked, he told her that she did not know that she had a “condition”. She then went to a meeting with two of the board members of the Condominium.
Instead of speaking to Rachel, the board member started asking questions of Rachel’s assistant, as if Rachel could not speak for herself –
- “Do you live with her?”
- “Will you always be with her?”
- “Do you sleep with her?”
“No, she can speak for herself,” said the assistant. Rachel continued, and attempted to explain her existence, she explained that she works forty hours per week and she schedules personal assistants around that work schedule. Notwithstanding the humiliation at having to explain the fact that she lives and works like any other person, the screening committee than attempted to try to convince Rachel why she should not live at Abbot House.
- The Board of Directors does not want to be held liable if something were to happen to you.
- The building only has one elevator, how are you going to work if the elevator broke?
- Fire fighters and paramedics do not want to climb stairs to rescue an elderly resident who was unable to evacuate due to a fire. The board did not have the funds to pay for modifications to make the building accessible.
Rachel told the Board that she would pay for any modifications to her own residence and the buildings elements are accessible to her and she did not need any modifications. When they could not dissuade her, the association requested that she sign a waiver, releasing the condominium from all liability from any injuries. To live in her home, she agreed, and then was provided the keys to the public areas, including the exterior door with the wheelchair ramp.
But before she could move in, the property manager told her that, the board that approved her tenancy to her face, now decided to decline her rental request, and followed up with an email:
This is to inform you that Ms. Rachel D. Siler, as a prospective tenant of Unit 4A, was denied by the Board of Abbott House Condo under the powers and duties of the Bylaws of the Association (See two (2) pages of the attachment).
By the understanding of the Board of Directors of ABBOTT HOUSE, INC. A CONDOMINIUM, the building has not the appropriate accessibility for people with disabilities conditions for the following reasons:
– The access to the building and other common areas as accessible route are not appropriate. We have not physical access like route, curb ramps, entrances and loading areas,
– There is not an appropriate parking space for a disable people. All of them are narrows,
– There is not a restroom and bathroom accommodation, etc.
All of the above are part of the main considerations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Therefore, the Association cannot be responsible for any future claim requested by Ms. Siler and any other officer of the Miami-Dade County
Stranded in Miami Beach, with no home, Rachel Siler, an independent living specialist, was in a nightmare that she would usually be the person who these issues would be reported to. But in a new city, she did not know where to turn. She reached out to Disability Independence Group.
On Monday, May 23, Rachel Siler, with the assistance of her family and her personal assistant, decided to move into her condominium in spite of Abbot House refusal to approve her lease in spite of their denial. Until a lawsuit was filed, Rachel and her service animal were harassed and attempts were made to block her and her personal assistant from the property.
It is unlawful to deny a person housing based upon insurance liability concerns. Historically, people with disabilities have been stereotyped in many different ways. Some of the stereotypes used to label people with disabilities as incapable of living independently, having a job, having a social and sex life and enjoying their life to the fullest.
The most common barriers to persons with disabilities are not physical barriers, but the attitudinal barriers that lead to this type of discrimination. The Fair Housing Act does not allow for exclusion of individuals based upon fear, speculation, or stereotype about a particular disability or persons with disabilities in general. This prohibition is both in housing, under the Fair Housing Act and with other accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As discussed in the comments Americans with Disabilities Act, one “cannot refuse to serve a person with a disability because its insurance company conditions coverage or rates on the absence of persons with disabilities. This is a frequent basis of exclusion from a variety of community activities and is prohibited by this part.” See 28 C.F.R. § 36.202.
Turns out that the least of Abbot House Condominium’s worries should have been whether Rachel Siler would not be able to get around in her wheelchair and would injure herself. Maybe instead of assuming she was an invalid who sleeps with her personal assistant, the Condominium Board should have started with the premise that she had a job, a life, and a passion for helping others. The real liability was the failure to acknowledge Rachel Siler as the die-hard disability advocate who works to help others destroy attitudinal barriers and harmful stereotypes.
By: Lesly Lopez
Extended Medicare Coverage
For Working People with Disabilities
As long as your disabling condition still meets our rules, you can keep your Medicare coverage for at least 8 ½ years after you return to work. The 8 ½ years includes your nine month trial work Period.
Your Medicare hospital insurance (Part A) coverage is premium-free. Your Medicare medical insurance (Part B) coverage will also continue. You or a third party (if applicable) will continue to pay for Part B. If your Social Security Disability Insurance cash benefits stop due to your work, you or a third party (if applicable) will be billed every 3 months for your medical insurance premiums. If you are receiving cash benefits, your medical insurance premiums will be deducted monthly from your check.
Continued Medicaid Eligibility (Section 1619(B))
For beneficiaries receiving SSI
One of the biggest concerns SSI beneficiaries have about going to work is the possibility of losing Medicaid coverage. Section 1619(b) of the Social Security Act provides some protection for these beneficiaries. To qualify for continuing Medicaid coverage, a person must:
- Have been eligible for an SSI cash payment for at least 1 month;
- Still meet the disability requirement; and
- Still meet all other non-disability SSI requirements; and
- Need Medicaid benefits to continue to work; and
- Have gross earnings that are insufficient to replace SSI, Medicaid and publicly funded attendant care services.
This means that SSI beneficiaries who have earnings too high for an SSI cash payment may be eligible for Medicaid if they meet the above requirements. SSA uses a threshold amount to measure whether a person’s earnings are high enough to replace his/her SSI and Medicaid benefits. This threshold is based on the:
- amount of earnings which would cause SSI cash payments to stop in the person’s state; and
- Average Medicaid expenses in that state.
If an SSI beneficiary has gross earnings higher than the threshold amount for his/her state, SSA can figure an individual threshold amount if that person has:
- Impairment-related work expenses; or
- Blind work expenses; or
- A plan to achieve self-support; or
- A personal attendant whose fees are publicly funded; or
- Medical expenses above the average state amount.
The state of Florida 2016 annual threshold amounts for disabled and blind beneficiaries is $30,566.
Other Health Insurance Options for People with Disabilities
Medicaid Share of Cost or medically needy from Department of Children and Families(DCF)
In Florida, the Medicaid Share of Cost program is a type of health insurance for the medically needy. These are people who make too much money to qualify for regular Medicaid, but not enough money to pay for their healthcare needs. They meet all of the standard Medicaid eligibility requirements except the income requirement.
The day your healthcare expenses for the month exceed your share of cost, your Medicaid coverage begins. From that day until the end of the month, you have full Medicaid coverage. You don’t actually have to pay the healthcare expenses used to reach your share of cost. You just have to owe that much. When Medicaid coverage begins, not only does Medicaid pay for your healthcare expenses for the rest of that month, it also pays for the expenses used to meet your share of cost that month. If you choose to pay those expenses yourself, they’ll still count toward meeting your share of cost, but you won’t be reimbursed by Medicaid for what you’ve paid. To apply or for more information visit www.myflorida.com/accessflorida.
Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) through? the Market Place
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law on March 23, 2010. Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, the law requires all Americans to obtain health care coverage through an employer, an individual health plan or programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, or Children’s Health Insurance Program (Florida KidCare) unless they meet an exemption. Individuals who do not meet an exemption and fail to obtain coverage may be subject to a tax assessment.
On Oct. 1, 2013, the federal government opened the Marketplace where individuals can compare and shop for health care coverage. Each year an open enrollment period will take place for individuals who are seeking Marketplace coverage. Medicaid and Florida KidCare enrollment takes place year-round. If a person applies at the Marketplace and is found potentially eligible for Medicaid or Florida KidCare, their application will be sent to the appropriate agency for processing. The ACA also provides cost sharing and tax credits to assist low-income qualified individuals in purchasing health insurance through the Marketplace.
- Individuals seeking more information about services offered through the Marketplace may contact the Federal Call Center at 1-800-318-2596, Deaf and Hard of Hearing TTY 1-855-889-4325, or go to gov.
Community Health Centers like CHI (Community Health of South Florida Inc.)
CHI is a nonprofit health care organization providing affordable quality primary and behavioral health care services to the residents of rapidly-growing South Florida. CHI operates 11 state-of-the-art primary care centers and 31 school-based programs. All centers offer quality comprehensive primary and behavioral health care services. Our physicians are board certified or board eligible. Additionally, CHI is accredited by the Joint Commission and is accredited as a Level 3 Patient-Centered Medical Home by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). CHI offers a “one-stop-shop” model where the organization and delivery of quality services are seamless, affordable, accessible and culturally sensitive. For more information visit their website: http://www.chisouthfl.org/about-us/.
If you are an SSI or SSDI beneficiary and need an individualized analysis of your situation please contact the Community Work Incentives Coordinator or benefits planner in your area. Please check the SSA Website for more details: http://choosework.net.
By: Andrew Sagona
The Family Café is a free conference for Floridians of all ages with disabilities and their families to learn about the latest developments in the Florida disability community and to attend the annual Florida “Governor’s Summit on Disabilities.” I have been attending Family Café for over ten years, and I still feel the same sense of wonder and excitement now as I did at my first Café.
This is in part because the atmosphere is fun, warm, friendly, and inclusive. There is always something fun to do for everyone and there are new and interesting things to learn at the Café, whether it is information on disability advocacy, an invention that helps people with disabilities, or a law that fights discrimination.
However, the main reason for my wonder and excitement – my favorite part of attending Family Café – is getting to meet new friends and see old friends again. Many of the people at Café attend the conference every year, the result being that you begin to see familiar faces at each conference. For some, like myself, Family Café serves as an annual family reunion of sorts. After attending the conference even once, you make some very close friends – to the point that they become your second family. But because of time and distance restrictions, we are unable to see each other at any other time of the year. So when the three days of Family Café rolls around each year, there is a great deal of anticipation, happiness, and joy when you see your “family” again.
Ultimately, friendship is the defining trait of Family Café. It is the heart of Family Café because there is a sense of acceptance and belonging at the conference that doesn’t exist to the same extent outside of the conference. Many attendees spend all but three days of their year experiencing stares, strange questions, and even discrimination. However, for the three days each June that the conference is held, all of that goes away. For those three days, everyone is kind to each other and no one is viewed as “less than” anyone else. For those three days, everyone is welcomed.
This year marked the 18th Annual Family Café, and it was held from June 10–12 at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Orlando, Florida. According to Family Café founder and organizer Lori Fahey, this year’s conference was the largest in history: approximately 10,000 people in attendance, over 160 training sessions, and more than 100 booths filled the exhibition hall. The Café also featured fun activities, including a Gatorland wildlife show, rock climbing wall, photo booth with Superman, and a fashion show. Each Family Café features three keynote speakers and two and a half days of workshops, which are informational presentations given by professionals, business owners, governmental agencies, and self-advocates covering diverse topics such as education, employment, starting a business, social security, Medicaid, technology, medicine, and advocacy. In addition, Family Café provides many activities for individuals with disabilities like paddle boarding, scuba diving, and sensory rooms.
The conference also has an exhibition hall filled with booths sponsored by vendors, businesses, and government agencies with the goal of letting attendees discover new products and services, or speak to agency representatives to help them with problems they are facing
This year’s “Governor’s Summit on Disabilities” featured information relating to the disability community. The biggest news announced at the summit was the introduction of the ABLE Trust, a savings account for people with disabilities that allows them to save money above the $2,000 limit set by Social Security, as well as the news that, as a result of increased funding, 5,000 individuals will come off the 20,000 people waiver waitlist this year. The summit was attended by Governor Rick Scott, members of the Florida Legislature such as Senate President Andy Gardiner, and heads of governmental agencies such as Barbara Palmer of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, Pam Stewart of the Department of Education, and Florida Surgeon General Celeste Phillip.
The Family Café conference isn’t just about education and policy, though. It is also about having fun and making new friends–and the fun begins with the hotel. Each year, the hotel chosen for the conference has something for everyone: massive pools for kids to play in, restaurants for families to dine at, and much more. This year’s hotel was no exception. The Hyatt Regency had three pools to choose from, the largest of which featured a water slide and other amenities. The Regency also had numerous eateries, including bars for the adults, an up-scale restaurant, and a 50’s-style diner.
The fun continues with the conference itself. Throughout the three-day event, DJs pumped music throughout the convention hall, enticing children and adults alike to dance. Performance groups, such as bands, a choir, and a dance troupe, performed throughout the Café as well, and they entertained large crowds with their talents. And there were lots of giveaways, with prizes ranging from gift cards to PCs.
The culmination of the fun was a massive dance party that was held on Saturday night. For more than two hours, hundreds of attendees packed a large ballroom and danced the night away to all kinds of popular music. Children and adults “raised the roof,” breakdanced, and danced free style. There were organized dances as well, with songs like “YMCA” and the “Cha-Cha Slide” bringing everyone together to dance in unison. The sense of excitement and pure joy that filled the ballroom was infectious.
For more information on Family Café, visit www.familycafe.org.