Friday, February 26, 2010

Boston disability group works to make sure people with disabilities counted by U.S. Census

From The MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass.:

Whether connecting blind people with Braille questionnaires or seeing that mentally ill residents fill out the form, a Boston group is working with the U.S. Census statewide to make sure people with disabilities are counted.

While it's estimated one of out every five people has a disability, it's a population that has been undercounted in the past, said Robyn Powell, assistant director of the Disability Policy Consortium.

"We're really just trying to break down that barrier for people with disabilities," she said yesterday.

It's a mission local advocates applaud, noting the Census count decides how more than $400 billion in federal funding is distributed among the states, including money for services on which some disabled people rely.

"In the abstract, people don't understand how important it is," said Paul Spooner, executive director of the MetroWest Center for Independent Living.

The Census begins next month.

Powell's group has landed funding from the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund, which was set up by the private Access Strategies Fund in Cambridge to increase responses from hard-to-count or underrepresented communities.

Powell said the coalition will use the funding to make outreach coordinators available in Boston, Worcester, Cambridge, Springfield and Holyoke.

In MetroWest, Powell said the consortium will reach out to organizations that serve people with disabilities, like Spooner's center.

"We're available to come in and talk to community groups about why people with disabilities should participate and how to do it," Powell said.

For people with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses who may have limited assistance in going about their daily lives, they may not otherwise see completing the Census as a top necessity, Powell said.

Michael Nicholson, Milford's Disability Commission chairman, echoed that concern.

"When a person is facing disabilities and they have priorities of getting through the day ... and they may have limited assistance, it may not be something they get to," he said.

Sometimes it's just a matter of getting access to the right accommodation, such as finding out how to get a Braille form or talking with a Census worker who can communicate with the hearing-impaired, Powell said.

Spooner said in some cases, people who live at state institutions or nursing homes have not gotten a Census form at all in the past.

"I do think it's been a problem. ... I clearly see that things have gotten much better," he said.

Families or health care aides who work with people with disabilities should check to make sure they complete the form or see if they need assistance, said Patricia Winske, co-chairwoman of the Marlborough Disabilities Commission.

"It's very important to get the numbers correctly so services continue," she said.

Bruce Kaminski, deputy regional director for the Census, said his office has assigned someone to work with the Disability Policy Consortium.

"Certainly there's challenges with that population and we have worked to overcome those," he said.

In addition to Braille questionnaires, forms are available in large print. A video relay service also will be available to hearing-impaired people who need assistance, he said.

The Census also will be opening questionnaire assistance centers, starting at the end of the week, Kaminski said. Spooner said his organization will help anyone with a disability who needs assistance.

The form going out next month will have 10 questions - the shortest in Census history.

It will not include questions about whether people have disabilities - that information is now collected through the American Community Survey, an ongoing arm of the Census that gathers data year to year, Kaminski said.

Still, the data collected through the decennial Census could shape funding and initiatives that directly affect people with disabilities, he said.

'Some of the benefits could be planning and construction of facilities for people with disabilities," Kaminski said. "It might mean that additional social services are needed or established for seniors, or child care centers developed, or hospitals or maybe job training centers."