Disability advocates host inaugural issues forum

Addison Bortnick, 12, far right, poses before the start of a forum hosted by the Disability Advocates Coalition for state candidates at the UTRGV Small Business Development Center on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — Education, unemployment and voting were at the core of the conversation Wednesday night at the inaugural Disability Issues Forum, where 2020 state office candidates weighed in on the matter.

The newly formed Disabilities Advocates Coalition – RGV hosted the non-partisan forum at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Small Business Development Center.

Last month, three nonprofits — the Capable Kids Foundation, the RGV Down Syndrome Association and the Valley Association for Independent Living (VAIL) — decided to join forces and form the new coalition. Wednesday’s forum was the first event the alliance organized.

The room was filled with families who had children with disabilities, UTRGV students and local leaders. Extra chairs had to be pulled up and some had to stand along the room’s sides –– all to listen to what state representatives and their challengers have planned for the Rio Grande Valley’s disabled population.

Addison Bortnick, 12, gave the introduction of the event and welcomed guests. She has down syndrome and has been a part of the Capable Kids Foundation since she moved with her family to the RGV three years ago from Abilene.

“I have down syndrome, but it does not define who I am or my capacity of loving,” she said with a smile.

Bortnick is a seventh-grade student at Cathey Middle School in McAllen and seemed to know many people in the room. She said she loves to read and that her favorite books are about Hellen Keller.

She recited a quote from the famous disabled political activist and author in unison with her mother, Rebecca Bortnick: “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

Three groups of candidates were asked to sit on the stage and go through rounds of questions. The first batch consisted of Texas Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., and all his opponents: Rubén Cortez, Vanessa Tijerina and Sarah Stapleton-Barerra.

Candidates were first asked how they were going to make sure that teachers have the resources and proper training to meet the needs of disabled students. Cortez, was the first to take the microphone.

“One thing I want to do if I am elected to be one of your Texas senators, is to sit with organizations like this… and ask: what do you need?” Cortez said. “The best way to make education policy in Texas —rather than making it from the capitol to the classroom, or board room to classrooms — is to take and make policy from our classrooms to our board rooms.”

Tijerina said she has spoken to the state board of education against Texas Education Agency’s cap on the percentage of students who could receive special education services. She also added the conversation was important to her because she believed she was the only candidate in the room who is on the autism spectrum and has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“One of the things that I mentioned was that that cap was not identifying students that need a certain type of curriculum,” she said.

Lucio said that in the state’s last legislative session, he filed Senate Bill 293, which aimed to improve training and staff development for educators. However, even though there was strong support for the bill in the Senate, it failed to get through the House of Representatives on time.

“I will be working with stakeholders of both inside and outside of the capitol, especially of my senate district of five-and-a-half counties, to overcome obstacles and pass this bill in the next session,” he said.

He then added: “What I think we need to do is have a mini-summit here in the Valley and this district, and invite all stakeholders to come before the Valley delegation so that we can discuss this fully and be prepared for the next legislation.”

Candidates were then asked how they would address the difficulties that people with disabilities face when applying for jobs.

According to research by Texas Workforce Investment Council, Hidalgo County was one of the counties with the most individuals with disabilities in 2017. The average unemployment rate for individuals without a disability was 4.2% in 2017, while the rate for those with a disability stood at 9.2%

Cortez said he recently visited Bay City and toured a special education unit there which has a program that prepares students for employment.

“I was able to meet with students who are a part of a program there and (it) trains them to work in the workforce,” Cortez said. “It trains, shows them how to survive with daily skills, cooking washing, cleaning. They were getting them employed at local flower shops, pizzarias –– local businesses were hiring them.

“I was just so in awe of the program that was going on in Bay City, Texas, that (I thought) that the same programs need to be spread across the entire state.”

The next batch of candidates included Alex Dominguez, Sergio Muñoz and Abraham Padron. Their first topic they addressed dealt with voting accessibility for those with disabilities.

“If our early voting sites or Election Day voting sites are not complying with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) or any accessibility requirements under state or federal law, then they should not be utilized,” Muñoz said. “That should be first and foremost with what the election office should look at.”

At the forum, Dominguez said he came up with a plan to reduce the barriers people with disabilities face while voting.

“I just realized that an even easier solution should be that we should pass legislation that requires one member of the elections board to be an advocate for the disabled,” Dominguez said. “That way, their input and their ability to go to each voting site –– whether it’s early voting or actual precinct voting –– they can make that tour. They can see the sites and see what needs to be changed, or if they need to find a new place all together.”