Larry Biondi, the advocacy coordinator at the Progress Center for Independent Living (PCIL) on Madison Street, is a “troublemaker” in the late John Lewis’ meaning of the term.
Biondi will be going to Springfield — virtually, online — this week to give testimony before the Senate State Government Committee in support of Senate Bill 921 (SB921) on behalf of the 19% of Illinois residents who have a disability.
Clark Craig, a Community Organizer at PCIL, explained the importance of the bill for the disability community by saying it “creates an Access and Functional Needs Advisory Committee to address the challenges people with disabilities in Illinois have faced and continue to face during disasters and emergencies.”
If you live in a multi-story rental building, for example, you are aware of a sign posted by each elevator door telling you to use the stairs in situations where the power goes out. So what is Biondi, whose disability is caused by cerebral palsy and who gets around in an electric wheelchair, supposed to do in times like those if he lives on the fourth floor?
Newscasts during the pandemic have often pointed out that the elderly living in congregate settings and Black and Brown people have been disproportionately ravaged by the virus. Craig contends that one more cohort should be added to the list.
“The COVID-19 pandemic,” he said, “has [also] revealed the major inequities facing persons with disabilities, particularly in emergency preparedness and response. The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies found people with disabilities and older adults making up over 42% of COVID-19 deaths.”
According to Craig the emergency operations plan of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA is the state version of FEMA) does not include specific language or inclusive disaster strategies that address the needs of people with disabilities. Additionally, none of IEMA’s training courses address disability concerns in emergency management.”
What SB921, which was submitted by Sen. Julie Morrison, does to address inequities is to begin by creating an Access and Functional Needs Advisory Committee which would be tasked with:
• Recommending ways to respond to the needs of people with access and functional issues before, during and after a disaster.
• Ensuring that people with disabilities are included in the plans of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
• Providing recommendations for IEMA to integrate access and functional needs into its emergency operations plan.
If approved by the committee where the bill is currently waiting to be addressed, it will move to the whole Senate for a vote and, if approved there, will go to the House of Representatives. At the time the Review went to press, Biondi did not yet know when he will give his testimony before the committee.
Because his speech is difficult to understand by most people, he uses two forms of communication to get his thoughts verbalized. One is a speech device that must be programmed in advance and sounds something like the mechanical voice we hear when calling a pharmacy. When Biondi wants to make a spontaneous comment not programmed into the device, he asks Clark Craig, who understands his speech his better than almost anyone because they share an office, to repeat what he said in a way that is easier to understand.
The officemates are what Marshall McCluhan would say is an example of “the medium is the message.” Craig himself has a mild speech impediment, so the two fearless partners in advocacy create an impact on legislators just by being present.
When the two advocates learned of the invitation to testify before the committee, they quickly went into action urging the disability community to submit what are called witness slips, i.e. a way supporters of a bill can influence the legislative process.
“In just two days,” Craig reported with a smile, “166 proponents participated, including sign-ons by both individuals and disability service, health & advocacy organizations- such as Progress Center, Access Living, Equip for Equality and The Arc of Illinois.”
Craig said that, currently in Illinois, at least one in five people have a disability. More than 25,000 Illinois residents receive home and community-based services to live outside of institutions. Due to lack of PPE and support, these communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
“The past year,” he declared, “has demonstrated the need for emergency responses that prioritize the rights and lives of people with disabilities and older adults. We can do better.”
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