Tag Archives: legislature

Service Animals in 2015

Senator Reeves presented a bill recently that would offer some greater protection to individuals with disabilities who use service animals. The senator was especially concerned about the number of veterans who are returning from combat with serious injuries and may be able to utilize service animals to assist with new physical and mental challenges. Some veterans complained to him that they are not treated well by businesses when they try to enter with their animals.

“Wait a second,” another senator challenged him, “you mean that if I own a restaurant and don’t want dogs to come in, I can’t make them leave? What if the health department fines me?”

Decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is still much misunderstanding about service animals. Under the ADA, a public accommodation can not deny entry to a person with a disability who uses a service dog, unless the dog is out of control or dangerous. The business can not require “proof” of training or proof of disability. The business can ask what tasks or work the dog does and whether that is needed because of a disability. But the inquiry must end there. Even if the business has a “no pets” policy, they must permit a service dog to enter.

There is good reason for the confusion, however. The ADA originally protected all service animals, but it was recently revised to protect only service dogs, as well as miniature horses that do work for people with disabilities. Other federal laws, like the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carriers Act, offer protection to service animals, without limit to dogs. Adding to that confusion, Virginia law protects service dogs, even making it a misdemeanor to deny access to a service dog.

Senator Reeves eventually withdrew his proposal, promising to work on the idea before the next session of the General Assembly. But it was clear to everyone in the room that there is a need for greater education about the use of service animals.

Send it to Finance?

In the process of lawmaking in Virginia, there is one tactic that is almost certain to kill a bill. Send it upstairs, Send it to Finance, Send it to Appropriations. When a committee hears a bill and decides to send it to one of the money committees — Finance or Appropriations — it is an almost certain death sentence.

Committees send proposed legislation to their money committees to review if it seems like there may be some cost associated with the bill. The money committees decide whether there actually is a cost and if so, how it will be paid for. With the Commonwealth’s notoriously tight budget practices, if there is a cost to a bill, the bill will be almost certainly defeated, no matter how worthy the cause.

That’s why advocates supporting the bill to reduce seclusion and restraint in public schools were so alarmed this morning. The Senate bill, which had been unanimously approved in subcommittee, was now before the full committee for consideration. The Chair said he’d been asked by some members of the committee to send the bill to Finance, to determine whether there will be any cost associated with the bill. “I mean no harm to the bill,” the chair insisted. He just thought that Finance ought to take a look at it.

The bill calls for the Department of Education to develop regulations that would govern if and when schools can restrain or isolate children with disabilities. The process of developing regulations is complex and slow. It often takes several years to develop the regulations, receive public comment, consider and respond to the comment, re-write the regulations, and then process them through layers of internal review, ultimately by the Governor. Any costs associated with the regulations would not come into play for years, well beyond any budget that the current legislature can affect.

Some school officials have argued that the training costs associated with the new requirements will be prohibitive. In fact, in places where schools have eliminated the use of restraints, their overall costs have gone down. They have had fewer staff injuries and fewer lost days of work. More importantly, they have fewer costs associated with injured children.

In the end, the Senate Committee was not fooled by the tactic. The committee defeated the motion to “send it to Finance,” and instead reported the bill directly to the full Senate. The committee chair chuckled at the end result. “In my 24 years,” he said, “I have never seen a motion to refer to Finance defeated like that.”

Traumatizing our Children

A Senate Subcommittee met yesterday to hear testimony about the use of seclusion and restraint in the Commonwealth’s public schools. Children, parents, and advocates testified about the dangerous practices in use in several school districts. The stories were alarming.

But even more surprising was the story told by Senator Thomas Garrett, a Republican senator from Hadensville. Senator Garrett told the story of having been repeatedly restrained and placed in locked seclusion as a first grader, for behaviors that any first grade kid might do. When his parents found out –after many, many incidents — they removed him from that abusive environment. In a new school, he went on to be a straight A student, eventually voted most likely to succeed.

His experience, decades ago, clearly left a strong, traumatizing impact on him. He became a successful lawyer and a state legislator, yet the tale of his first grade experience brought his emotions to the surface.

Restraint and seclusion is always traumatizing to a child. Restraint and seclusion is an indicator that treatment has failed, that educational plans have failed, that educators have abandoned any hope for creating a learning environment.

The bill under consideration by the Virginia Legislature would, eventually, dramatically restrict schools from inflicting that kind of trauma on any kid. As Senator Garrett eloquently stated at the hearing, somewhere out there in Virginia, there is a kid in a locked seclusion room who could become a great success in life, if he is only treated with respect, instead of treated with trauma. It is our hope that Virginia will move in that direction.

The 2015 Virginia legislative session begins soon

The 2015 legislative session in Virginia begins at noon on January 14, 2015.  This is a “short” session, meaning that the legislature plans to be in session for 45 days, rather than the 60 days of the “long” session.

The disAbility law Center of Virginia will be monitoring developments in the legislature that may be of interest to people with disabilities.  We are available to educate policy makers about the potential impact of legislative proposals.  Please let us know of any legislative proposals or budget issues that you think we should be following.  Contact us at info@dlcv.org or by calling 1-800-552-3962 or 804-225-2042.

The mission of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia is, through zealous and effective advocacy and legal representation, to protect and advance the legal, human and civil rights of people with disabilities, to combat and prevent abuse, neglect and discrimination, and to promote independence, choice and self-determination by persons with disabilities.

Does Virginia Need Training Centers? — Continuing Discussion

In the 2014 session of the Virginia General Assembly, the legislature passed Senate Bill 627, which instructed the Department of Behavioral Health to convene a work group to consider options for expanding the number of training centers that remain open in Virginia.

That work group has now met twice. It is clear that the Commonwealth remains committed to supporting a community based service system. There are many advocates on the workgroup who support that commitment, especially in light of the growing numbers of people who are on the waiting list for services. It is equally clear that a small group of parents are resistant to that service system shift.

Read more about the information being considered by the workgroup at this link: http://www.dbhds.virginia.gov/ODS (Scroll down about half way to the section called “announcements.”)

If you want to comment on the Commonwealth’s commitment to community based services for people with intellectual disabilities and the prospect of keeping more training centers open, you can email to sb627@dbhds.virginia.gov

or send your comments by hard copy to

SB627 Work Group
1220 Bank Street, Room 1323
Richmond, VA 23219

The next meeting of the work group will be on September 5, 2014 at 10 am. The group meets in the capital building in downtown Richmond.

Does Virginia need training centers?

Virginia operates five large institutions for people with developmental disabilities, which we call “training centers,” and which have a total population of just under seven hundred people. In a few months, the Commonwealth will close just one of those institutions, Southside Virginia Training Center, in Petersburg. Four other institutions will remain open for a little while.

However, in order to improve services in the community, under an agreement with the United States Department of Justice, the state plans to close three more of the training centers over the next six years. Eventually, just one institution will remain, in Chesapeake, for no more than 75 people.

At least, that is the plan. And that plan has some people worried. Last month, some family members testified before the General Assembly, arguing that the state needs to keep its training centers open. Only in training centers, they argue, will their family members be safe and cared for. These citizens believe that their loved ones have needs that are far too complex to be served in community settings.

Is it true? Does Virginia need training centers? The General Assembly seems unsure. The House and Senate passed legislation, now on its way to the Governor, that calls for a stakeholder group to consider keeping more training centers open. What is happening in Virginia? Is this the right direction for us?

Preventing crisis, helping kids

Much of the media and legislative attention in recent months has focused on dealing with people who are already in mental health crisis. Discussion has centered on the process and timing for holding a person who is a danger to themselves or to others.

We have had far too little discussion about preventing crisis. Mental health professionals know that the wiser move is to invest in prevention. We can avoid greater costs — human and financial — if we invest in supports and services before a crisis arises.

This is true for children with mental health needs as well. Listen to this informative piece on the value of funding mental health services for children, services that help before a crisis arises:


There is hope!

This week, a ray of hope appeared. Thanks to creative work by the Virginia Senate, it may be possible for Virginia to get the full benefit of medicaid expansion on January 1, 2014.

During their floor debate on the proposed state budget on Thursday, the Senate voted to amend their committee’s proposal in order to allow the Medicaid Extension to be put in place as early as January 1, 2014. The Senate amendment requires certain changes to our state medicaid plan as a precedent before expansion can occur. The Senate version also it creates a special health care savings fund. The Health Reform Innovation Fund would bank savings realized in the early years of medicaid expansion so that the State would be able to cover additional costs if they arise later on.

Medicaid expansion is critically important to hundreds of thousands of Virginians who are just above the poverty level, many of whom are people with disabilities. Currently, Virginia has one of the most restrictive Medicaid programs in the entire country.  Expansion would mean that about 400,000 Virginians could qualify for Medicaid health insurance. This is a key component of the Affordable Care Act; the benefits to Virginia — both to businesses and to ordinary citizens — are enormous

Unfortunately, the House did not include such provisions for the Extension in their version of the budget. With two different budget proposal before them, the General Assembly will select a small group of seasoned legislators to meet in conference and develop compromise proposals to bring back to both bodies.

A final resolution to the question of Medicaid expansion is still many days or weeks away, but the creative solution adopted by the Virginia Senate offers some small hope to the poorest Virginians.

Voting Rights in Virginia

Change comes slowly in Virginia.  Although many states have adopted early voting procedures and made it easy for people to vote absentee, Virginia continues to resist advances in voting rights.  Early voting and absentee voting would especially benefit people with disabilities and the elderly.  The slow-moving lines on election day can be a deterrent to anyone who has difficulty standing for a long period of time.   Moreover, many people with disabilities are employed at lower-paying, hourly wage jobs, so standing in line for hours on a Tuesday can actually be costly.

Nonetheless, the Commonwealth favors voting on election day only, and this is not likely to change any time soon.  Our legislature, currently meeting in Richmond, has declined several opportunities to make it easier for people with disabilities, and others, to vote.

Tuesday morning, a House subcommittee of the Privileges and Election Committee killed a series of bills that would have made it easier for people to vote absentee or vote early.  The House also killed a bill that would restore voting rights to certain convicted felons after they serve their sentence, even though that particular bill was supported by Governor McDonnell.   Likewise, Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections killed a number of bills that might have made it easier for people with disabilities and others to vote.

However, there is one bill still alive and under consideration – SB 967 – that would eliminate the requirement that people with disabilities provide details about their disability in order to get an absentee ballot. The bill, sponsored by Senator Adam Ebbin, eliminates the requirement that people with disabilities provide information about their disability in order to qualify for an absentee ballot.  This bill was considered by the full Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections committee on Tuesday and was referred to subcommittee for further work.

Change comes slowly in Virginia, but perhaps this year, this tiny change will come.

The R word in federal law

The US Senate is considering Rosa’s Law, a bill that would remove all references to “mental retardation” from federal law.  The term will be replaced with the term “intellectual disability.”  The law will benefit all “who are labeled, stigmatized, and bear a burden the rest of their lives because of the language we use in the law books, ” according to Senate sponsor Barbara Mikulski.  It has been approved by the Senate committee on Health, Education, and Pensions and has no known opposition.  

You may remember that Virginia’s General Assembly considered a bill to remove the R word from the Virginia code a few years ago.  In a unique maneuver, our legislature passed the bill but made it contingent on being passed a second time in the next year.  That next year, when the bill came back to the legislature, it was substantially modified.  By the time the bill came back to the General Assembly, all it did was change the name of the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. 

Let’s hope that Rosa’s law accomplishes a lot more than our state effort accomplished.  Our fellow Virginians with intellectual disabilities deserve better.