May 4, 2010

Small victories for disabled, but advocates want more money

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By Nick DiMarco
Nick@MarylandReporter.com

Disability advocates were proud to have claimed a few victories on Tuesday, as Gov. Martin O’Malley signed new voting rights and other laws into effect, but the overwhelming consensus from this year’s legislative session is that there is still a “long, long way to go.”

O’Malley approved several bills that affected specific groups of people with disabilities, but advocates complain that overarching issues — specifically funding for mental health services — were not addressed.

The big win of the day was a law that protects voting rights for people with disabilities who are under guardianship. In the past, all disabled people were blanketed under a provision that would not allow them to vote.

“We think that’s the democratic way to go and they’ll be able to participate and we’re very happy about it,” said lead sponsor Sen. Mike Lenett, D-Montgomery.  “I agree with them. I agree with that assessment they have. This was a very good session but we have a long, long way to go.”

Other bills that became law Tuesday included property tax exemptions for disabled veterans, tax credits for employers who hire individuals with disabilities and mandated revisions to the “State Disabilities Plan” every four years.

The broader push, advocates say, should be toward shrinking a waiting list of thousands who need development disability services. Supporters attribute the legislature’s inaction to an election year aversion to raising taxes.

The big letdown for the groups like the Maryland Disability Law Center was the fact that no action was taken on a 10-cent alcohol, which was proposed to bring in revenues for services.

Virginia Knowlton, the center’s executive director, said the majority of the session was focused on keeping current services off the chopping the block.

“It’s not a good year when the best you can do is to try to keep people from life-threatening cuts from services and supports that they need,” she said. “We certainly support efforts of discreet disability groups. We do like to see groups working together to achieve significant victories … but we tend to focus on the broader initiative that will benefit the largest number of people with disabilities possible.”

Laura Carr, a disability rights advocate and daughter of Lorraine Sheehan, for whom the voting rights bill was named after, said she was honored to see the bill become law.

Still, she too lamented the legislature’s failure to address service issues.

“We understand that it’s a bad funding year, a bad year to ask for more money, but we’ve been asking for more money since way back when we had money and never got it,” she said.