If you had thirty minutes to talk to the Governor, what would you say? From February 7th through the 9th, 2016, this was a very real question for Brooklyn self-advocates Chad DeRoche and Danielle Levine as they headed up to Albany for the NYSACRA-NYSRA Legislative Policy Forum. After weeks of practice – and years of self-advocacy – they were ready to speak to members of the State Senate, Assembly, and the Governor’s office. They found an audience in the offices of nine legislators, at a press conference, and with officials in the Department of Health, Human Services, and OPWDD.

Chad DeRoche with his Petition to Increase pay rates for DSPs and Petition

Chad DeRoche with his Petition to Increase pay rates for DSPs and Petition

For Chad, the choice of what to say was easy: he has been advocating for increasing state funding for DSP salaries since 2014, when he presented a petition to Gary Lind, Executive Director, AHRC New York City, with over 200 signatures. Not only do they deserve it, he feels, but it directly affects the quality of his services.

“The [AHRC NYC] staff has really helped me with my art and I’m thankful to them, [but] some of my favorite staff left for better paying jobs,” said Chad. “New staff is constantly being brought in and not many stay because of the low pay.” He added,”I hope the pay is increased because the staff works very hard.”

Chad’s message resonated with his audience in Albany and, in the wake of Cuomo’s refusal to increase Medicaid funding even after calling to increase the minimum wage, it was an urgent concern for all forum participants. Chad was even invited to participate in a NYSACRA-NYSRA joint press conference on the wage issue.

Danielle had something to say that was less familiar to most people, but equally important to people with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities: the status of Individualized Education Plan (IEP) diplomas. As Danielle said to many officials, despite getting the best scores in her office administration classes at Kingsborough Community College she is struggling to find a job or internship as an office administrator. The reason is because unlike the other students in the class, Danielle does not have a high school diploma or GED. When employers require one of these documents for employment, they do not recognize the validity of the IEP diploma. Danielle wants to change that.

“I want to be an office administrator,” said Danielle, “but I can’t because [all the jobs] require a high school diploma or GED, and it’s not fair for people with IEP diplomas.” In addition, if Danielle does include her IEP diploma on her resume, she discloses a disability, which could influence potential employers. She found a receptive audience with everyone we talked to, especially the Chiefs of Staff for Senator Martin Golden and Senator Lanza – both of whom said they have nieces in similar situations.

Speaking of his trip to Albany and experiences overall, Chad said, “It was wonderful to go represent. It was a good experience for me to learn what lobbying is and to speak up for myself. It was fun, exciting, and excellent.”

After their first lobbying experiences, both Chad and Danielle are looking forward to their next opportunity to advocate for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.