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Disabled Abandon Wheelchairs, Protest Medicaid Cuts

(Photo: moni / Flickr)

When Sheela Gunn-Cushman decided to take part in a die-in at the California Republican Convention at the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento in March, she didn't think it would change minds, but she believed that if attendees had to look into the eyes of people with disabilities, they might think twice about pushing for and supporting continued budget cuts.

“There wasn't one person at that action that wasn't disabled,” said Gunn-Cushman, a disability rights advocate who is blind and has a mild case of cerebral palsy. “We have all been hit hard by budget cuts.”

Shortly after arriving, Gunn-Cushman and several other members of Communities United in Defense of Olmstead (CUIDO) got out of their wheelchairs, made their way to the ground of the hotel lobby and quietly revealed signs saying, “Our lives are precious,” “Close corporate tax loopholes,” and “Tax oil.”

As this “Die In” video taken by E+ Productions shows, no one could have predicted what came next. Hotel security arrived, followed by a crowd of curious onlookers who took out their cell phones and began taking photos of the disabled protesters. Many laughed and heckled. One man said, “Get a job!” Another said, “You retards are sure gonna look funny tonight on YouTube!” A woman attending the convention said, “Who let this scum in here? Someone should throw out the trash!”

“I was floored by what happened,” said Gunn-Cushman. “It was appalling. I went into a deep depression after that action and that's hard for me to do.”

As the heckling and ridiculing continued, the Sacramento Police arrived, wheeled the protesters out of the lobby and arrested many of them outside.

A registered Republican who is in the process of leaving the party because of her experience at that action, Gunn-Cushman, who was wheeled out of the action last, says the climate has changed since she began organizing in 1983. “It seems to be, 'Oh god, here they go whining again.' What people don't realize is that more budget cuts mean we either get very sick or die.”

Hit by budget cuts in every state across the country, people with disabilities are greatly concerned about funding cuts for In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS), which allows them to live independently in their own homes and remain active in their communities.

“I have cerebral palsy. I need 40-50 hours of help per week in order to get out of bed, go out, go to work and participate in my community,” says Sarah Watkins, development specialist at the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and an active member of ADAPT, a national grassroots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action to assure their right to live in a supportive community. “I wouldn't be able to afford help on my salary. I need Medicaid support in order to make that possible and live on my own.”

The caregivers who help people with disabilities get out of bed, take a shower, cook and get ready for their day make between $8-13 an hour and rarely receive benefits.

On Monday, March 23, Watkins took part in an action inside the Texas state Capitol and outside of Gov. Rick Perry's rented mansion in Austin, Texas, calling on the Texas legislature to use the state's $9 billion Rainy Day Fund to continue funding for IHSS and avoid even deeper cuts to social services. The rental is costing taxpayers $10,000 a month while the governor's mansion is being renovated, according to KXAN.

Fourteen people, including many in wheelchairs, were arrested. “Since January, we've been agitating, organizing and advocating for our lives,” said Watkins. “There's still this cultural stereotype that we don't have the ability to do anything for ourselves. That's what makes our movement so powerful. Politicians look at us and say, 'Let's write off these people because they're a drain on the resources.' But if we shut down traffic or shut down the governor's office, it's a counter message that says we are not vulnerable. That's why direct action is so effective. The police don't know what to do with us and the people in power don't know what to do with us.”

More often than not, people in power ignore the disabled community. That's why media coverage is so important, but is all too often lacking.

On May 2, over 300 members of ADAPT from across the country flew or drove to Washington, DC, to demand that Congress derail Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which would force millions of seniors and people with disabilities who rely on Medicare to pay twice as much as they do now or do without treatment altogether. According to ADAPT, the Ryan plan would cut Medicaid programs by 35 percent, which translates to a loss of $722 billion in services. Medicaid pays for wheelchairs and prostheses for people with spinal cord injuries and other physical disabilities, prescription drugs for people with mental illnesses and other medical conditions, services to assist people with intellectual disabilities to live and work in the community rather than be forced into an institution and screening programs to identify and diagnose disabilities for children.

Ninety-one members of ADAPT were arrested on charges of unlawful conduct for occupying the Rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building. “It was my 25th arrest,” says Dawn Russell, an ADAPT member who moved to Colorado from Tennessee in 1999 in order to stay out of nursing homes. “Over the last several years, we've had meetings, we've gone to protests, we've made ourselves available to address these issues and all we get is a pat on the head and a promise for another meeting. Screw this, you're lying to the American people. So we occupied the building.”

In a statement, ADAPT says it will “do whatever it takes to defend the right of people with disabilities and seniors to live in our homes, not nursing homes and institutions. It is unacceptable for our own government to treat the 60 million Americans who rely on Medicaid like garbage.”

Politico and The American Independent were the only major outlets that covered the action.

“The mainstream media is dropping the ball on the whole issue. The only place you see us is on YouTube and it makes me really frustrated,” says Blane Beckwith, a disability rights activist who moved to Berkeley, California, from Bear Lake, Pennsylvania, in 1980 to pursue an independent life. “We're discriminated against and we're fighting for our lives. Most people in our communities don't know what we're facing because we never get covered and we try very hard. We try our best to interact with the media and to talk to reporters, but it's falling on deaf ears.”

Beckwitch has spinal muscular atrophy and breathes through a ventilator. Because he has an extensive attendant care routine, it takes about five hours before he is ready to leave the house. But that doesn't stop him from going to actions, getting arrested and speaking out about how budget cuts will affect him and his community. “If the IHSS cuts happen, I will lose more attendant care hours, making it even harder to pay my people who work for me,” he said. “Any Medi-Cal cuts will probably result in more out-of-pocket expenses that I cannot afford. It will make it very hard for me to get by. I am already having a very difficult time paying for my basic expenses. Paying for groceries is becoming a problem, especially since SSI recipients in California do not qualify for food stamps.”

“If IHSS is cut again, I don't know what will happen to Blane,” said Sheela Gunn-Cushman. “The folks in wheelchairs need help getting out of bed every morning. If IHSS is cut, then what? They lay in bed all day? This is why I'm fighting. I'm fighting for my life and my friends. I will be an activist until I can't walk, speak or think.”

Here are other actions you may have missed this month:

On May 25, more than 2,500 teachers filled the sidewalks around the Broward School District headquarters in Fort Lauderdale to protest layoffs and demand raises. “This is ridiculous,” said Christina Taylor, a fourth-grade teacher at Discovery Elementary in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “We don't have paper to make copies for the kids.” Approximately 1,400 teachers received layoff notices last week.

On May 20, more than 2,000 state workers, union members and their supporters gathered in front of Salem, Oregon's state capitol to rally for alternatives to budget cuts, wage freezes and furlough days. KMTR reports that it was one of the largest rallies in the state so far this year. At least 36 buses provided transportation to Salem from communities across the state.

“We've seen a 30 year erosion of buying power for working people, erosion in wages and really an accumulation of power by corporation and they've been able to set up a system where they very rarely pay taxes, but what it's going to take to change that is activities like these, rallies like these, where people come out and say enough is enough,” said Heather Conroy, Executive Direct of the SEIU Local 503, in an interview with KMTR.

The SEIU's “Moving Oregon Forward: A Better Way” plan calls on legislators to collect unpaid taxes and end corporate tax breaks.

On May 18, over 100 citizens gathered at the Courthouse in Morgantown, West Virginia, to oppose a plan to obtain natural gas through fracking along the Monogahela River. The Associated Press reports that this was the first significant protest in West Virginia over the rapidly growing exploration of the Marcellus shale field, a vast, mile-deep natural gas reserve underlying much of Appalachia. “We want drilling to stop right now, today and we want laws put in place immediately that protect the rights of the people of West Virginia,” said organizer Sandra Fallon in an interview with The Associated Press. “We are under attack, really. Our town is under attack by these well drillers.”

On May 17, over 400 citizens gathered in the rain to demonstrate outside of JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio, demanding an end to unfair and inhumane foreclosures. George Goehl, executive director of National People's Action, told The Huffington Post that he and several elderly protesters were maced as police attempted to move protesters back from the building. “There must have been 10 police for every banker,” he said. “JPMorgan Chase, they don't only own the government. They own the Columbus police department.”

The Washington Post reports that inside the meeting, several shareholders spoke out against the bank's handling of mortgage foreclosures.

“As a person of faith, my God believes you shouldn't take advantage of people when they are down,” said Dawn Dannenbring of the community group Illinois People's Action, addressing CEO Jamie Dimon. “Do you believe in the same God I believe in?”

“That's a hard one to answer,” he said.

The country's second-largest bank recently reported that its first-quarter net income rose 67 percent to $5.56 billion from $3.33 billion last year. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon's total compensation jumped nearly 1,500 percent to $20.8 million in 2010 from $1.3 million in 2009, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Also on May 17, approximately 300 city workers and their supporters gathered in the rain in front of San Jose, California's City Hall to protest budget cuts, shortened library and community center hours and 400 planned layoffs, including 64 firefighters.

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