Voting in Virginia

Two weeks ago, people swarmed Virginia’s polling places … to vote, and to survey accessibility.  dLCV recruited volunteers from all over the state to do a simple survey of polling places.  Was there accessible parking?  Was there an accessible path of travel?  Could the door be easily opened by someone in a wheelchair?  Was there any accessible voting equipment?

With all of our wonderful volunteers, we were able to collect more than 300 surveys of polling places.  Now comes the task of carefully assessing all the findings and remedying the problems we found.   Sadly, we found plenty of problems.

One of the more troubling violations we found throughout the state was the absence of real curbside voting.  Under state law, voters who are 65 or older or who have a physical disability are entitled to “curbside” voting:  An officer of election will bring a ballot or portable electronic voting machine to the car for the person with the disability to vote there.   State law makes clear that even with curbside voting, the voter gets to vote in private.

But throughout the state, we found place after place where there was no means for the person in the car to let the poll workers know they needed a curbside ballot.   Some polling locations told us that the voter needs to come inside and ask for it … really missing the point, don’t you think?  At one location, someone who was electioneering for a candidate had to cover up her campaign t-shirt and go inside to ask for the curbside ballots for people.   Multiple times.

At my polling place, there was a sign outside listing a phone number you could call to request curbside voting.  Although the sign was hard to read in the best of circumstances, the rainy weather we had that day completely wilted the thin paper sign. Unreadable.  It was a good try — but it fell seriously short of being accessible.

On the Department of Elections website, voters are “reminded” to bring an assistant to go in to request the ballot, but no such requirement exists in state law.  Requiring a voter with a disability to have an assistant would pose some serious legal questions under the Americans with Disabilities Act, in any event.

We know that all Virginia polling places can do better, because many are fully accessible.  As we analyse the survey results, and collect more election day stories, we will update you on what we have learned.  For now, though, we extend a huge thank you to all our wonderful volunteers working with us to improve access for people with disabilities.


Rethinking School Discipline

Guest Blogger:  Melissa Gibson, Esq

A few years back, the Center for Public Integrity authored a report on school discipline disparities among students of color and students with disabilities in Virginia and other states. While the study itself isn’t without controversy, the disproportionate impact of exclusionary discipline for those students is well supported, and the study helped catalyze the conversation on reforming school discipline practices.

Consider students with disabilities. The emphasis on exclusionary discipline (i.e., suspension, expulsion or other practices that remove a child from the learning environment) follows from the historic legacy of excluding children with disabilities from “regular” education classrooms as part of a system of segregation.  This system of segregation, born from stereotypes and stigma surrounding disability, is no longer acceptable to most people.  Neither should the de-facto segregation that can result from exclusionary discipline policies.  That deprivation of education is seen as an appropriate punishment for even minor offenses reflects a paradigm that is at worst discriminatory and at best fails to address the underlying causes and needs of students with disabilities.

That’s why I’m encouraged by the conversation that’s taken place on Senate Bill 170.  Lawmakers and advocates – including Just Children and Voices for Virginia’s Children — have advanced legislation to curtail exclusionary discipline in Virginia schools for several years, but none of the bills got out of the legislature. School representatives warned of the consequences of taking disciplinary tools from teachers and administrators.  Some lawmakers were concerned that retaining disruptive students would harm other children.  Compromises that proved little better than the status quo couldn’t make it out of subcommittee.

However, Senate Bill 170 represents a tenable compromise that will limit exclusionary discipline for very young children while maintaining schools’ discretion to remove children in extreme circumstances.  As critics of SB 170 note, the bill won’t provide for services that could address the underlying causes and needs of students who act out or have difficulty complying with classroom norms.  We agree that the conversation on what happens instead of removal and how to better support school should continue and that lawmakers should make it a priority.  SB 170 isn’t necessarily the stuff of advocates’ dreams, but it moves Virginia forward in transforming the school discipline landscape.  The benefits will hopefully accrue to all young children in Virginia, but particularly to children with disabilities.


Addressing Health Care Needs

The Virginia legislature is considering several approaches to expanding government funding for health care.  A Senate committee heard extensive debate on the subject Thursday morning and defeated all proposals.  The debate was illuminating.

Although the politicians all carefully avoided calling the efforts “medicaid expansion,”  most of the members of the public who spoke in favor of the proposal did not hesitate to do so.  Advocates for people with disabilities spoke in favor of the proposals in the Senate Committee on Health and Education this morning.

Virginia’s health care providers have long advocated for medicaid expansion, noting the huge amount of federal funding that would come into the state under the federal Affordable Care Act, and the relief they would have from having to provide health care to the poor that is not otherwise paid for by any program.

Senator Barker, one of the patrons of expansion, stated that current polls show that support for expansion by Virginians ranges from between 60 % to 83 % , and cautioned that the recent house elections demonstrate how important this issue to Virginians.  He stated that he appreciates his colleagues in the Senate and will miss serving with them if they oppose the efforts to increase health care.

Senator Chase did oppose the efforts, arguing that expanding medicaid would actually hurt people with intellectual disabilities who are waiting for waiver services.   Senator Howell said that the exact opposite is true, because of the greater infusion of resources that will come from the federal government and because our hospital systems will no longer need to bare the costs of unfunded medical care.  Senator Howell argued that the savings from expansion could be directed to medicaid waivers, allowing Virginia to come closer to eliminating the ever-growing waiting list for these crucial services.

The only public opposition at the hearing came from Americans for Prosperity,  a national anti-health care lobbyist group,  who argued that medicaid is not cost effective.  Nonetheless, in the face of overwhelming public support, the Senate Committee of Health and Education defeated all proposals along a party line vote of 8 to 7

We were grateful to hear from Senator Hanger, the chief patron of the bill, that the priority under the proposal would have been to direct funds to mental health and substance abuse needs.  Virginia’s mental health services are notoriously underfunded; the Senate Committee’s decision to defeat the proposals only ensures that the huge gap between needs and services will not be closed any time soon.

Are all crimes “hate crimes?”

This morning, Virginia’s Senate Committee on Courts of Justice defeated two bills that would have extended “hate crime” protections to people with disabilities.

Virginia’s “hate crime” statute establishes higher mandatory minimum penalties for a crime where the victim is selected based on certain characteristics.  The law affords an elevated punishment level to a crime that is committed with special animus towards someone based on their religion, race or ethnicity (one section of Virginia’s law also adds “color” as a protected trait).  This morning’s proposal would have added that elevated punishment level if the animus was directed towards a person’s disability.  With the increase in bullying and violence that we are seeing towards children and adults who are different in any way, the disAbility Law Center of Virginia supported this extension of existing law.

But the bill was defeated.  The final vote broke down along party lines, with Republican senators expressing opposition to something that might offer protections to people who are nearsighted or who have a learning disability.

Opponents to a second, similar bill this morning declared that “all crimes are hate crimes,” so that that no one class of victim is deserving of special protections.  One  opponent said that the legislation amounted to “thought punishment,” even after a senator reminded him that it is an actual criminal act that is being punished.

More and more people with disabilities are moving towards full integration in society, even in slow-to-change Virginia.   We would hope that our constituents will not need the added protections of hate crime penalties, but only time will tell us whether our hope is justified.

Charlottesville: Let us never forget our true history

The nazi chants and fascist symbols on display in Charlottesville last weekend were terrifying to many people.  Among those feeling especially threatened — people with disabilities.  The ideology on display evoked a time when the extermination of people with disabilities was a key element of the fascist movement in America.

The 1920s saw the rise of fascism in America and all over the world.  With fascism came the eugenics movement.  Together, they sought the establishment of  a “superior” race, absent any “defects.”  In Virginia,  eugenics — forced sterilization of “defectives” — was legally and social acceptable.  Just down the road from Charlottesville, at what is now known as the Central Virginia Training Center, superintendent A.S. Priddy carried out thousands of sterilization operations, with the intent to eliminate future generations of people with intellectual and other disabilities.

Perhaps most famously, Priddy involuntarily sterilized  a young woman named Carrie Buck, claiming that Buck had diminished intellectual capacity. The United States Supreme Court endorsed this action, stating, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

That was 1927.  Those shameful days are long past now. Or so we hoped. The Eugenics law in Virginia was repealed, but it took 50 years to do that.  Virginia’s legislature issued a statement of “regret” for the Eugenics movement, but even that did not occur until 2001.

A year later, Virginia erected a historical marker near the site of Carrie Buck’s home, and issued a statement concluding, “the eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved.”   The legislation calling for the historical marker argued that eugenics and the supremacist movement underlying eugenics is “an embodiment of bigotry against the disabled and an example of using faulty science in support of public policy.”  The marker stands as a reminder to us all of  those very dark days in our history.

That historical marker is in Charlottesville.

Guest blog: The room where it happens: House subcommittees

(Melissa Gibson is a staff attorney at the disAbility Law Center who spent many hours in January and February working at the Virginia Legislature.  She shares some of her  impressions with us.)

In Hamilton: An American Musical, the performers sing “I wanna be in the room where it happens.”  They were discussing a very different situation, but I can’t help but hum this song to myself when I am going into the General Assembly building.  A lot of work goes into bills that the general public will never participate in.

But if you want to be in the room where things are happening, start at the House Subcommittees.  This is typically the first opportunity to speak directly to a group of legislators who have significant power to support or kill the bill you’re following.

Hearing the discussion between the patron and subcommittee members and hearing others’ comments can also help you refine your advocacy strategy and public comment.  Perhaps there is an opportunity to inject critical facts into the discussion; perhaps it’s a non-starter but an amendment will allow it to live on and get reported to committee.  In the House subcommittees, so often, it can go gently into that good night without further comment.

For HB 1534, and HB 1536, a set of House Bills regarding student discipline, the subcommittee provided a great opportunity to listen to the sponsoring legislator passionately speak to the principles that animated him to patron the bill.  Delegate Richard Bell discussed his bills, which were introduced with the goal of reducing allowable timeframes and offenses for long term suspension and eliminating the practice for very young students.  He fielded criticisms and questions, consistently reinforcing the subcommittees’ obligations to educate all students, those with exceptional needs, the outliers who need the most protection. Other members joined him, building on those themes, and ultimately the subcommittee moved to report in a recorded 6-3 vote.

Those bills went through a number of dramatic transformations throughout the process, and neither made it out of the General Assembly.  Nonetheless, the patron’s eloquent defense and the powerful comments from the subcommittee and public made it very worthwhile to be in the room that day. It was the room where it happened. I know that the excellent work of agencies like JustChildren will continue and hope that the importance of educating all of Virginia’s children, including and especially children with disabilities and other challenges, will continue to resonate with our elected representatives.



Guest blog: Are your parental rights in danger? People with disabilities and threats to child custody

(Jenny Heilborn is a senior disability rights advocate at dLCV.  Over the past few months, she has been working to educate policymakers about issues in the disability community. This is one of the issues she worked on at the state legislature.)


Recently in Massachusetts, a mother with a developmental disability gave birth to a child and found the child immediately removed from her custody by the state simply due to her disability.  The state offered no reasonable accommodations for her disability during the child’s removal.  Additionally, the state did not offer any supports or accommodations normally offered to non-disabled parents upon the removal of a child.  The Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated and found unlawful discrimination.  Yet still the mother and child were separated for almost two years after birth, denying both attachment, bonding, and the first two years of the infant’s life together.

You can read more about their story here:

Unfortunately, discrimination as based upon disability is a common issue and isn’t restricted to Massachusetts.  The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the DOJ have received many complaints of discrimination from parents with disabilities regarding custody.  These complaints seem to be on the rise.  The American Bar Association (ABA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have found that disabled parents face higher rates of removal of their children.  For example, in the ABA 2017 Resolutions with Reports to the House of Delegates, the ABA cites 12.6 percent of parents with blind or deafness reported experiencing discriminatory treatment related to custody.

Upon urging from the Disability Commission in Virginia, Senator Barbara Favola, working in collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind and the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, put forth a bill to address the discrimination of blind parents in this year’s legislative session.  Senate Bill 1199 provided that a parent’s blindness should not be the sole basis of denial or restriction of such their custody or visitation rights.


Although Senate Bill 1199 passed through the Senate without opposition, it did not pass the House due to opposition from the Virginia Bar Association’s Family Law Coalition.  This opposition centered around legal interpretation of applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and if the parent’s blindness alone could serve as the basis of a denial or restriction of custody without clear and convincing evidence that the best interests of the child would not be served or met.

After lengthy debate and testimony from all sides, it was recommended to table the bill and to form a workgroup with interested stakeholders to address all concerns.  The workgroup will include Senator Favola, the National Federation of the Blind, the Virginia Department of the Blind and Vision Impaired, the Family Law Coalition, the disAbility Law Center, and all other interested parties to develop a revised bill for the 2018 General Assembly.

“It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.” —Harvey Milk

Join our voices as we fight for equal civil rights for individuals with disabilities.