Washington, DC – Today, 150 leaders of The Arc from across the country met with a variety of senior White House officials at a Community Leaders Briefing to ask questions and discuss issues facing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). The session, held just for The Arc, included an unannounced visit from President Barack Obama. The President spoke of his commitment to people with disabilities saying, “I’ve got your back.”
This surprise appearance by the President of the United States was the highlight of the day for many attendees, along with the opportunity to interact with high level government officials about how they can support people with I/DD to live in the community. Over the course of the day, leaders of chapters of The Arc were briefed on topics ranging from Medicaid to education to community living and employment for people with I/DD. Many of the speakers, including President Obama, referenced the impact advocates made during budget negotiations to protect Medicaid, and encouraged The Arc and others to continue these efforts.
Another unannounced speaker was White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, who reiterated the President’s opposition to turning Medicaid into a block grant. He also took questions from the audience, including Barbara Coppens, a member of the national board of directors of The Arc and a self-advocate who took the opportunity to speak about the importance of self-advocacy by people with disabilities.
“I tell other self-advocates – you’ve got to get out there and advocate for yourself because you can’t rely on other people to make change for you,” said Coppens to Chief of Staff Jack Lew.
The day was organized by Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy, who kicked off the agenda by welcoming guests and speaking about employment issues. The Arc heard from Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who spoke of their commitment to providing services and supports to all in need. Other speakers included Carol Galante, Acting Assistant Secretary – Federal Housing Administration Commissioner, Department of Housing and Urban Development; Cindy Mann, Deputy Administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Robert Gordon, Executive Associate Director, Office of Management and Budget; and Tom Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Department of Justice.
Assistant Attorney General Perez discussed the recent Department of Justice settlement with the Commonwealth of Virginia regarding people with I/DD who live in any of its five institutions who could live in the community. He spoke about the bipartisan work going on across the country to implement the Olmstead decision, which states that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), unnecessarily institutionalizing a person with a disability who, with proper support, is capable of and who wants to live in the community can amount to discrimination.
After a tour of the East Wing of the White House, advocates from The Arc took part in policy breakout sessions that allowed for more detailed discussions on certain issue areas, like community living, family caregiving, education, and Medicaid. The purpose of these briefings was to allow White House and administration officials to engage in a dialogue with leaders of The Arc about how government policies affect the lives of people with I/DD and impact their ability to live full, independent lives. Given the Department of Education’s announcement yesterday to allow ten states waivers from some of the No Child Left Behind law requirements, the education session with Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, was incredibly timely, as were meetings with representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, Administration on Aging, and the White House Domestic Policy Council.
“This unique, face-to-face opportunity to speak directly to people in positions to make change from within the government allowed leaders of The Arc to make the voices of the millions of people with I/DD heard at the White House. Our network seized on this opportunity, and we left the White House feeling a sense of accomplishment and inspiration for continued advocacy that we will take back to our communities to help grow our movement,” said Peter V. Berns, CEO of The Arc.