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The Peer Action Alliance is a community of peers organized to advocate for equal access and inclusion of individuals with disabilities

Advocacy & Activism: Claiming the Disability Voice in West Michigan

Powered by you. Sponsored by Disability Network West Michigan. Supported by Peer Action Alliance.

October 24, 2017 @ 2:00 p.m.

Disability Network West Michigan / United Way Building:

31 E. Clay Ave. / Muskegon, MI

Join us as we work to build the disability rights movement in West Michigan! Together we will build community, learn and practice advocacy strategies, and take direct action on the issues impacting us locally.Advocacy & Activism: Claiming the Disability Voice in West Michigan. Powered by you. Sponsored by Disability Network West Michigan. Supported by Peer Action Alliance.

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Yes, the Penguin Project Is Ableist.

This Fall, the Penguin Project is coming to Muskegon. Local children and young adults with disabilities will be cast in a production of the musical “Annie, Jr.” that will run October 14 and 15, 2017 at the Frauenthal.

The Penguin Project describes itself as follows:

“The Penguin Project is a musical theater production that casts children and young adults with disabilities in all roles. All will sing, dance and act in the show. Those individuals (Artists) will get assistance from on-stage peers (Mentors). Who can participate? Artists are children and young adults (ages 10-22) with disabilities. Including (but not limited to) Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment and neurological disorders. Mentors are children and young adults (ages 10-22) who do not have disabilities. They will be matched with an artist of similar age and the two will work side-by-side.”

What is the reason that a person with a disability cannot be a mentor?

The disabled actors will be matched with “mentors,” who are specifically defined as non-disabled people. There is only one reason that people with disabilities cannot be a mentor: ableism.

The Penguin Project defeats its own goal by teaching children with disabilities that non-disabled people are their superiors, not their equals. They are being allowed to participate in an activity as long as they accept their role as a recipient of charity needing to be mentored by non-disabled people. That’s not what we want our kids to learn.

Exactly what is the goal of matching disabled people with non-disabled “mentors”? What do non-disabled people have to offer in this context? If this were a reciprocal relationship meant to decrease segregation, it would be described as a peer-to-peer relationship. What qualifies the non-disabled mentor? Not professional theater experience. Not experience successfully navigating the world with a disability. Simply the virtue of being non-disabled.

Text: It's called the Penguin Project because penguins can’t fly. Get it? Image: A confused penguin with a speech bubble that says "I use my wings for swimming and diving. I don’t need to change to meet your arbitrary definition of success.” #saynotoableismFurthermore, the Penguin Project employs ableist messaging to achieve its goal. It’s called the Penguin Project because, “Our penguins may not be able to fly, but that does not prevent their spirits from soaring.” That’s the kind of stuff that makes the disability community want to puke.

Why are children and young adults with disabilities who wish to participate in theater not being served in integrated programs?

We must stop using people with disabilities as props for charity and inspiration porn. The hallmark of these activities is that they are performed for the benefit of the “helper,” not the recipient, and always treat the disabled person as a prop.

Our youth, both with and without disabilities, are absorbing these messages:

  • people with disabilities are inferior to non-disabled people
  • disabled people belong in segregated programs
  • people with disabilities need charity
  • disabled people “have very few friends and limited social opportunities” (per penguinproject.org)

The Penguin Project is brought to us by No More Sidelines, which also engages in segregated programs that rely heavily on ableist stereotypes. We urge everyone who supports disability rights to end support for segregated programming and embrace full integration of people with disabilities in our community.

Continue reading

Top 10 Problems at the Michigan SILC

1. Members of the Michigan Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC) are not knowledgeable about America’s Independent Living Program as required by law.

The Governor is required to appoint people to the SILC who represent a broad range of disabilities from diverse backgrounds who are knowledgeable about Centers for Independent Living and Independent Living services, a majority of whom cannot be employed by a Center for Independent Living (CIL) or the state.

2. SILC Council Members are not given the information they need to carry out their responsibilities.

Information and training are being withheld from Council Members in order to keep control in the hands of Michigan’s corrupt Centers for Independent Living, which do not meet consumer control requirements.

3. Michigan SILC Council Members and staff have no idea what the purpose of a SILC is.

Save MI CILs - Oversight Now!Blue Water CIL Executive Director and CIL Liaison to the SILC Jim Whalen recently stated, “I can help the council, or find people who can, discover a purpose and start having the behaviors that it takes to make progress toward those purpose—including those that are required to under federal law”.

A SILC that does not know its purpose is clearly unable to carry out its responsibilities.

4. Michigan Centers for Independent Living (CILs) use the SILC as a piggy bank.

CIL representatives do not disclose conflicts of interest or recuse themselves from votes that directly benefit themselves financially.  Continue reading

Comments on the Michigan Common Disability Agenda

The main problem in Michigan’s local disability communities is that our taxpayer-funded Centers for Independent Living have lost all connection to their role as consumer-driven advocacy organizations. One of the most important roles of a Center for Independent Living like Disability Network West Michigan is to bring individuals with disabilities together so that we can engage in collective action.

Save MI CILs - Oversight Now!Our CIL has no opportunities for individuals with disabilities to engage in systems advocacy, which is a legally required activity.

Yet, we’ve been invited here today to give input into a “Common Disability Agenda”. The people I want to have a common agenda with are my peers – other people with disabilities. Centers for Independent Living, Disability Network, and the SILC should not have a common agenda with subminimum wage employers, vocational rehabilitation, and other agencies that exploit people with disabilities. Those agencies and predatory businesses should have ZERO say in the disability community’s advocacy agenda.  Continue reading

Letter to the Inspector General Calling for An Immediate Audit of the Independent Living Administration

The Honorable Daniel R. Levinson
US Department of Health and Human Services
Office of Inspector General
ATTN: OIG HOTLINE OPERATIONS
PO Box 23489
Washington, DC 20026

Dear Inspector General Levinson,

We are writing to request that the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conduct an audit of the Independent Living Program and the legal oversight responsibilities being neglected by the Independent Living Administration (ILA) within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), specifically in regard to contractor and grantee compliance with the laws governing America’s Independent Living Program.

The Independent Living Program is primarily regulated by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (reauthorized in 2013 as part of the Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act – WIOA). Federal law requires the Independent Living Administration to provide oversight of the IL Program by conducting onsite reviews of 15% of America’s 337+ Centers for Independent Living annually.

WIOA created an Independent Living Administration within ACL. Previously, oversight of the IL Program was provided through the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) within the Department of Education. In 2012, the Department of Education Office of the Inspector General issued audit findings (Attachment 1) that concluded RSA was not fulfilling its legal obligations to the public. The OIG made the following findings:

  • “We found that RSA had not provided adequate monitoring and oversight of the CILs. We also found that the Section 704 Annual Performance Reports for Centers for Independent Living Program (704 Reports) were not fully supported by the documentation available at the CILs reviewed and that consumer service and other records did not contain the documentation required by the program regulations.”
  • “As a result of the inadequate monitoring and oversight, partially supported performance reports and inadequately documented files, (the Rehabilitation Services Administration) did not have sufficient, accurate information to provide required oversight of the grant programs at the CILs reviewed… Appropriate oversight is essential to ensuring that the program goals are met.”

The OIG issued a corrective action plan, but it was too late. Because the IL Unit at RSA had refused to fulfill its legal obligations for decades, plans were already underway to remove the IL Unit from RSA’s purview. We – the Independent Living community – believed that the creation of an Independent Living Administration would put an end to this long-standing problem. As of the date of reauthorization, the CILs reviewed are no longer required to be selected randomly, which allows the ILA greater flexibility to review CILs that are clearly demonstrating non-compliance with the law. Unfortunately, we continue to experience the same problems the OIG identified and ordered corrected in 2012. Specifically:

  • Like RSA, the ILA relies on narrow and unsupported interpretations of the Rehabilitation Act in order to avoid its responsibilities. This is causing significant harm to the Independent Living Program nationwide and specifically in Michigan.
  • The IL Unit within the Independent Living Administration is not conducting appropriate oversight of Michigan Centers for Independent Living (CILs) and the Statewide Independent Living Council (SILC), collectively known as Disability Network/Michigan.
  • Michigan’s Centers for Independent Living are not providing the core services required by law and are not meeting long-standing compliance indicators.
  • The ILA has made public statements that indicate they intend to decrease monitoring activities instead of working towards compliance with the law.
  • No formal complaint process for CILs and SILCs exist and IL Specialists within the Independent Living Administration are unreachable for years end; IL Specialist Job Descriptions (Attachment 2) have not been updated in over 12 years despite major revisions to the law governing the Independent Living Program; and IL Specialists are refusing to perform the duties listed in their job descriptions.
  • The ILA is relying on unverified assertions of compliance and is not conducting monitoring activities. ILA does not terminate grants for non-compliance with the Rehabilitation Act, even when non-compliance is demonstrated by the public. ILA staff members openly admit that oversight is only provided in the case of financial misconduct.

Our request to you follows the receipt of an unacceptable response from the Independent Living Administration dated June 1, 2017 (Attachment 3), which failed to address substantial questions raised over the course of years. Despite assurances to the contrary, the ILA does not appear to have conducted any meaningful investigation of the serious allegations raised by consumers or any assessment of its internal practices or procedures; any audits or other meaningful oversight of its grantees with regard to compliance. To the contrary, the ILA seems to be arguing that it is legally and ethically unable to fulfill its responsibilities.

The ILA’s response contains several statements that the ILA knows to be false. Those false statements are outlined in my response (Attachment 4). The ILA’s response makes a broad declaration of compliance of Michigan’s entire IL Program without any review of Michigan’s Statewide Independent Living Council and 14 Centers for Independent Living beyond the 704 Reports. It is obvious that the minimal oversight activity conducted was undertaken with the objective to support a declaration of compliance regardless of the available evidence.

Michigan CILs are now controlled by the state despite federal law requiring that CILs must be designed and operated by local disability communities. The ILA is fully aware that Michigan CILs are submitting falsified data in their 704 Reports with the assistance of the state. In addition to complaints directly from Michigan citizens, all federal evidence collected over the past several decades supports the conclusion that Michigan CILs are falsifying 704 Report data and not providing the core services as required by law:

  • In 2012, the Office of the Inspector General, Department of Education evaluated the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living and found that improper documentation violated several laws surrounding fiscal misconduct and reporting requirements (Attachment 1).
  • In 2013, the Rehabilitation Services Administration performed an onsite review of Disability Advocates of Kent County (Grand Rapids CIL) and found that: DAKC did not properly maintain Consumer Service Records (CSRs); did not meet consumer control requirements because individuals with disabilities did not constitute more than 50 percent of DAKC’s employees in decision-making positions; had not established three-year program and financial planning objectives; and did not meet all prescribed standards for financial management systems (Attachment 5).
  • In 2014, Disability Network/Wayne County (Detroit CIL) was sued by the EEOC for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to accommodate a deaf employee.

Nevertheless, the ILA relies on a declaration of compliance from the state – the very entity that has illegally taken control of Michigan CILs. At this point, the ILA is participating in a cover-up of fraudulent activities on the part of Michigan CILs in order to excuse themselves from their responsibilities.

I urge you to please investigate these issues. Michiganders with disabilities are suffering without access to functioning Centers for Independent Living, despite having an Independent Living Program that is Congressionally-mandated and fully-funded by taxpayers.

Thank you very much for your time. Please do not hesitate to reach out if I can provide you with any further information. My contact information is included below. More information on the consumer-driven campaign to bring Michigan Centers for Independent Living into compliance with the law is available at www.peeractionalliance.comContinue reading

Muskegon Disability Community Top Advocacy Priorities 2017

  1. Transform Disability Network West Michigan into a fully functioning Center for Independent Living that is community-based, cross-disability, and consumer controlled.

The founders of the Independent Living Movement created fully funded Centers for Independent Living in federal law. Muskegon’s CIL receives approximately one million dollars per year in taxpayer dollars to be comprised of a majority of individuals with significant disabilities; to provide advocacy to individuals experiencing discrimination; and to provide systemic advocacy to proactively address structures that keep Muskegonites with disabilities dependent. We must bring our CIL into compliance with the law in order to successfully organize and take action on any other issue. A fully functioning Center for Independent Living is our greatest potential asset in our work for disability rights.

  1. Eliminate Subminimum wages in Muskegon County.

Subminimum wages are a scheme by which a business or organization is legally allowed to pay workers with significant disabilities less than minimum wage (sometimes pennies per hour) in exchange for labor. That labor is then rebranded as “training” and packaged as a service provided to the individual. The business or organization then bills Medicaid, Rehabilitation Services, or another provider for providing the individual the “experience of work”. These individuals rarely move on to integrated employment and can spend decades in back rooms sorting screws into jars or folding used clothes while CEOs walk away with $500,000 / year salaries. We have experienced first-hand that this practice is alive and well in Muskegon.  We must eliminate this outdated and dehumanizing practice immediately.

Who’s Paying Subminimum Wages in Muskegon: Goodwill Industries of West Michigan.

  1. Housing

We must adopt and enforce universal design standards and require publicly funded housing to meet accessibility standards. There is desperate need for affordable accessible housing. Muskegonites with disabilities are being unjustly forced into group homes, nursing homes, and other institutions that limit freedom simply because they lack housing options.

  1. Eradicate employment discrimination.

A casual glance at the local want ads reveals a culture that is not prepared to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce. How many job ads have you seen for positions that require the applicant to “have the ability to walk, speak, and hear”? Ninety percent of the time, that requirement has nothing to do with the essential duties listed in the job description. Requiring a valid driver’s license for jobs that do not involve driving is one way commonly used to deny access before a job seeker with a significant disability even applies. We need to educate the community on discrimination in the hiring process as well as the workplace.

  1. Reform guardianship laws and ensure that parents with disabilities are not discriminated against.

Currently, many people with significant disabilities in Muskegon are placed under unnecessary full guardianship by the Courts without being fully informed about their rights. They are often surprised to learn that they no longer have the right to vote or marry and that revoking full guardianship can be a long, expensive, and trying endeavor. People with significant disabilities are discriminated against routinely in custody cases and without a functioning Center for Independent Living, they have no one who understands the law to stand with them in a biased system.

  1. Access

A settlement between the US Department of Justice and the City of Muskegon was reached in 2010 and lasts five years. Under the settlement, the City agreed to make its services and programming fully accessible. Unfortunately, Muskegon events, polling places, parks, bus stops, and sidewalks remain out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This issue must be addressed systemically and with accountability to the local disability community.

  1. Education

We need every member of the Muskegon disability community to be fully aware of our rights under the Rehabilitation Act, the ADA, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). We need at least one full time advocate, employed by our local Center for Independent Living, who can provide consumer-driven disability rights advocacy to students and parents navigating the school systems. We want to see students with disabilities empowered to achieve their own goals and for schools to set higher (and equal) expectations for youth with disabilities to be economically independent and self-determined as adults.

  1. Healthcare

Many doctors’ offices and clinical services are not fully accessible. Physicians need to be educated about their obligations for translators or interpreters and examination tables and scales must be useable by chair users. Healthcare professionals must learn from people with disabilities about the issues that determine quality of life and satisfaction rather than assume disability is solely a medical problem.

  1. Transportation

Transportation options for people with disabilities are woefully absent and unavailable in Muskegon County. Bus stops are not fully accessible. Paratransit services are limited to the bare minimum required by law and are not responsive to the needs of the community and to individuals wishing to utilize those services. Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft, which are actively vying for support from the Michigan legislature, are also actively fighting the Americans with Disabilities Act in Court. Accessible taxis are generally unavailable. The right to travel freely through our community is a civil right. We must address this issue systemically and as a community.

2017 Rally for Disability Pride Planned for Saturday June 10 in Downtown Muskegon

On June 10, the disability community, people with disabilities and our allies, will gather at the Olthoff Street Stage in downtown Muskegon to celebrate Disability Pride Day, educate ourselves about the issues of today and demonstrate that our voices are critical to current policy debates.

All are welcome to attend. There will be music, light refreshments, face painting, music, and speeches from local disability rights advocates, our allies, and our elected officials. The program will also feature an “open mic” session do increase dialogue about disability issues in our community.

Olthoff Street Stage is located in Downtown Muskegon, across from the Frauenthal. The event is scheduled from 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. The Rally for Disability Pride is free of charge and open to the public. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP on Facebook.