Monday, March 30, 2009

People with disabilities rally for independent living in Washington state

From the Yakima Herald in Washington state:

YAKIMA, Wash. — More than 50 people, many of them developmentally disabled, rallied early Saturday at Millennium Plaza to shut down the Yakima Valley School.

It was a striking display in front of television cameras near Yakima's Capitol Theatre organized by people philosophically opposed to centralized residential care.

As dozens of older men and women with mental and physical disabilities yelled in unison about "freedom" from institutions, some organizers admitted they hesitated to go through with the event in recent days.

"We've heard a lot about whether we're exploiting people ... Our agency has no financial interest in this," said Von Elison, executive director of Central Washington Disabilities Resources in Ellensburg. "It was the people with disabilities that said, 'We want to do this.'"

A passionate debate has ensued since mid-December, when Gov. Chris Gregoire included the school's closure as part of her austere two-year budget. Whether the school will close by 2011 is up to legislators.

Opponents of the school say they don't doubt its employees' qualifications, but that it's an obsolete and expensive institution that hides the disabled from society. They point to research showing the health and behavior of disabled people improves when they live in smaller settings, close to family, friends and recreational opportunities.

Meanwhile, the school's supporters say that while community-based living may work for some, the profoundly disabled cannot survive without the school's on-site services.

"I think we're missing the point here," said Dolores White, a social worker and the school's respite coordinator who attended the rally and stood quietly to one side with some co-workers. "It's unfortunate we can't come together and consider each individual's needs."

During the rally, Elison excited the crowd as she spoke into a megaphone about why "the person with the disability should decide where they want to live."

"How do you want to live?" she asked the group.


Local service providers brought some developmentally disabled people they work with from throughout the Yakima Valley and as far away as Spokane.

"We believe in self-advocacy, so we can teach people with disabilities that they can speak for themselves," said Tammara Allen, an adviser with People First Spokane Valley who brought two women she helps. "They shouldn't be locked away in a closet."

Organizers passed the megaphone to anybody in the crowd who wanted to speak, or sing, about their thoughts. Many people who once lived in the school talked about how awful it was.

One young woman told the crowd about her brother, who lives in the school. She said there isn't a better place for him.

White said the school helps individuals transition into society if that's what they choose.

"Of course they have the option," she said. "But what if they choose the Yakima Valley School?"