Describer: On the screen is the Minnesota Council on Disability logo. The words “MCD Commissioners’ Roundtable, June 2nd, 2021”.
We will be starting shortly. We invite you to listen to this discussion. In the following weeks, please engage with MCD Public Policy Director, Trevor Turner, with any questions, comments, or concerns.
You can reach him at Trevor.Turner@state.mn.us or 651-350-8642.
Nikki Villavicencio: Welcome, everybody. My name is Nikki Villavicencio, and I’m the Chair of the Minnesota Council on Disability here. And I am joined by the Executive Director, David Dively.
I am sitting here in my home in Maplewood and I am a woman with glasses, and I have short brown hair.
David, would you like to introduce yourself?
David Dively: Yeah, thank you. Hi. Thank you, Nikki. My name is David Dively and I’m the Executive Director for the Minnesota Council on Disability. The Minnesota Council on Disability is a small but passionate agency that wears a few different hats and we serve as an advocate, as a technical resource, and as a bridge to empower the communities that we serve. We work with a variety of state agencies, the legislature, the non-profits in the advocacy field and the Governor’s office, so we want to ensure that Minnesotans with disabilities have choices about where they live, things that lead to integrated, independent lives in their communities. And some of that work is done by our agency, and some of that is done by partnerships with other agencies and nonprofit partners, such as our Minnesota Disability Action Partnership.
As many of you know, Minnesotans with disabilities have a special relationship with state agencies. From an early age, Minnesotans are screened and tested for early intervention and support programs that are in line with the Department of Health, receive school services and benefits and programs that are overseen by our Department of Education, and starting at transition age and afterwards, they receive supports and services from Vocational Rehabilitation Services within the Employment and Economic Development department. Human Services helps to ensure Minnesotans with disabilities live integrated lives within their communities, and the Department of Health ensures access to health care as well as improved public health at a statewide level as well. And then Department of Human Rights fights discrimination and protects the rights of Minnesotans with disabilities throughout the entirety of folks’ lives.
Today we want to facility a discussion that examines that special relationship and how our state agencies can understand each other’s roles in our lives and to improve collaboration and services and supports for Minnesotans with disabilities. Nikki, if I can turn it over to you to go over the accommodations about captioning and sign language interpreters.
Nikki Villavicencio: Absolutely. Thank you so much, David. So, before we begin, we have a few housekeeping notes.
The deaf interpretation and CART captioning services are being provided. To turn on the captioning, please click the CC button at the bottom of your Zoom webinar screen to enable the live captions. Or you can click on the CART StreamText link in the chat to open up the captions in another browser – window, excuse me.
For our guests, when introducing yourself, please remember to use audio-visual descriptions and to speak one at a time. These simple accommodations will help ensure a full inclusive experience for everyone in our community who are following the roundtable discussions today.
And as David so eloquently said, today we are hosting the Minnesota Council on Disability’s Commissioner Roundtable discussion. And we are honored to have the five state agency Commissioners here with us to discuss the intersectionality of Minnesota’s state agencies and the disability community.
Now I would like to hand it back to David.
David Dively: Thank you. So, this roundtable discussion – Er, excuse me. I’m a white male. I use he/him pronouns, and I’m in my basement office here at work. I didn’t visually describe myself earlier, apologies.
The roundtable discussion will be led by our policy director, Trevor Turner, a good friend of the Council on Disability and community activist Brittanie Wilson together. And they will be joined by, as we just mentioned, Commissioner Grove, Commissioner Malcolm, Commissioner Harpstead, Commissioner Mueller, and Commissioner Lucero.
And so now I’ll pass it on to Trevor Turner, our Public Policy Director, to introduce himself and our guests. Thank you.
Trevor Turner: Thank you, David. We’re excited to get this started. As you said, my name is Trevor Turner. And I am the Public Policy Director for the Minnesota Council on Disability. I’m a white male with blond hair, blue eyes. I’m wearing a black and white suit and my background is of an office with a blurred background.
So, thank you so much. I’m very excited to get this started because disability advocacy is very personal to me. You know, as someone who’s deafblind, I’ve personally interacted with and received services from several different state agencies in my life, and for that I’m very grateful and it’s my mission to help improve access to the myriad of state disability services that help Minnesotans live independent and integrated lives in their communities.
So next I would like to introduce Brittanie Wilson, a community activist and friend of the Council on Disabilities, who will be cohosting the roundtable with me today.
Brittanie Wilson: Hi, Trevor. And thank you so much. It is a pleasure to be here with you all today.
As stated, my name is Brittanie Wilson. My pronouns are she/her. And I’m a Black and Brown proud queer disabled woman – Happy Pride – wearing a black dress with –
I’ve got long kind of black curly hair and red dangly earrings.
And as Trevor stated I am a community activist and a self-advocate with a strong belief in disability justice. And as someone who was born with a disability, in one way or another, I’ve always had some sort of relationship to state agencies. And through these agencies, waivered services, and my PCAs, I’ve been able to live independently in the way that I choose. And I’m very, very grateful for that.
And additionally, we also know that there are some systemic barriers that marginalized folks with disabilities face when accessing agencies and services. And in the disability community, access is love.
And so, I’m looking forward today –
To today’s discussion to hear about the work that’s being done to ensure that all Minnesotans with disabilities have equal access to live, love, grow, work, and enjoy our lives.
Thank you. Back to you, Trevor.
Trevor Turner: Thank you, Brittanie. I’m honored to have you as my cohost and thanks for agreeing to cohost with us. So now let’s introduce our Commissioners for our roundtable. First, we have Commissioner Steve Grove of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Commissioner Grove, welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit, in a few words, how does the Department of Employment and Economic Development currently serve the disability community, and what are the goals to help improve the lives of Minnesotans with disabilities?
Commissioner Grove: Great, thanks, Trevor. Hey, everybody. Steve Grove here. I’m a white man sitting at the State Capitol here in a room on the first floor. I have brown hair and a blue suit jacket. I prefer t-shirt and shorts this time of year, but we’ll take it. It’s an honor to be here. Thanks for having me.
Our agency is focused on growing the Minnesota economy for everyone and we do that in partnership with both businesses and workers. We have a pretty robust set of programs and departments within D.E.E.D., focused on people with disabilities. We have Vocational Rehabilitation Services, which helps find career pathways for those with one or more disabilities and we also host the State Services for the Blind here, which is our agency focused specifically on blind Minnesotans. And so that’s a good percentage of the agency that we run. We also have disability determination services, which provides early social security benefits to a worker who may have a disability and needs to go on those benefits to make ends meet.
We like to focus on the abilities of the people that we work with, and one of the things that we’ve seen time and again in talking with employers is that those who look to labor pools in the disability community are often surprised by how much talent they find there and some of the unique skill sets they can take advantage of.
We’ve been able to partner with the disability community and with employers, for example, to use some virtual services to drastically shift our VRS program to ensure we can meet all applicants to that program versus having a waiting list. That’s been a big advancement for us in the last year that we’re really proud of.
But anything that we do with the community we do with the community. And so, our department is constantly engaging stakeholders, engaging leaders in the community and trying to push businesses to do more in this area.
We know the pandemic hit the communities of disability harder than the rest of the state, and while we had been pretty excited about some of the growth in labor force participation amongst people with disabilities before the pandemic, a lot of that got erased over the last year. So, we got some catching up to do, and we want you to hold us accountable to that. We want you to show us what we should be doing, where we should be focusing, because there’s a lot of opportunity in Minnesota economy, and we know there’s a lot of need for strong talented workers.
So, honored to be here and thanks for having me.
Brittanie Wilson: Thank you, Commissioner Grove. We are really happy to have you here.
Our next Commissioner is Rebecca Lucero of the Department of Human Rights. And, Rebecca, if you could give your visual description and pronouns and tell us a little bit about yourself, and last but not least, answering that same question as Commissioner Grove: How does the Department of Human Rights currently serve the disability community, and what are your goals to help improve the lives of Minnesotans with disabilities?
Commissioner Lucero: Sure. Thanks, Brittanie. So yeah, my name is Rebecca Lucero. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I am a cis-gender Chicano woman with hazel eyes and brown hair wearing a black jacket and orange earrings.
I am the Commissioner of the Department of Human Rights. And I’m sitting in my office. You know, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, we are the state’s civil rights enforcement agency. And we actually have one of the strongest civil rights enforcement agencies in the country.
We strongly believe that disability rights are civil rights. And our vision is a world where everyone can lead lives with dignity and joy. And oftentimes we get asked, “What does a state agency have to do with joy?” And so, Brittanie, when you said access is love, it made my heart smile big, because that’s exactly what it has to do with. It has to do with the world that we’re building towards together.
So how do we do our work? At the end of the day, we are an enforcement agency. And so, the work that we’re most known for is, we investigate charges of discrimination. And in fact, overwhelmingly, the vast majority of the cases that we investigate month after month are disability cases. It’s disability cases, sex discrimination cases, and race discrimination are the top three cases that we see come into our office.
And so we do our work to make sure that we are investigating and working with businesses, employers, landlords, to make sure that there are systems in place and structures and accountability in place to make sure that discrimination doesn’t occur, and then beyond that, that we’re working to a culture that is more welcoming, accessible, and inclusive.
Trevor Turner: Thank you, Commissioner Lucero. Really, really happy to be here. And thanks for being part of this discussion.
Next, we have from the Department of Education, we have Commissioner Heather Mueller with us. Welcome, Commissioner Mueller. Go ahead and introduce yourself, and then same question. How does the Department of Education currently serve the disability community and what are your goals to help improve the lives of Minnesotans with disabilities?
Commissioner Mueller: Well, thank you very much. I’m deeply grateful to be able to be here. My name is Heather Mueller, and I have blond hair and blue eyes. I’m wearing an orange and white zigzag shirt, and I’m sitting in my office in my home that has a yellow walls that looks sometimes yellow and sometimes a vastly different color. And I continue to put my hair behind my ears because it’s falling in my face and driving me insane.
So, I am thankful to have the opportunity to talk with you today. I think one of the things we know, first and foremost, is that as we serve students from birth through –
We consider adult education. And we know the role that our students play, not only in our lives daily, but in our economy and in our work.
And so, what we continually strive toward is really making sure that we embody our mantra that “Nothing About Us Without Us.” And really are thoughtful about ensuring that the decisions that we’re making as they affect our disability community are made with Minnesotans with disabilities at the table to ensure, really –
The ways that we’re thinking about that is access is one important component, but once we step beyond access, access becomes a floor. And we’re really also thinking about participation and representation. And making sure then that the outcomes for each and every one of our students, given their talents and given their abilities, give us the opportunities to really build upon those in our K-12 programs, as well as they transition into the –
Their next phases of their life, whether that’s in community work or into college or whatever that next phase looks like for our students.
And so, we really strive to fight ableism and recognize that that is work that we are continuing to do. And as part of the education system. And I think most importantly, we know that students who receive special education services are first and foremost general education students. And so, I think that that’s one of the ways that we are consistently striving is to ensure that that special education component is something that is special and in addition to. But they are first and foremost students.
And then really looking for opportunities to go beyond access and really talking about participation, representation and our intersectionality with a number of other agencies that – including D.H.S. and D.E.E.D. are – continue to be incredibly important because they offer opportunities to not only educate and provide life skills in our programs but really give us the opportunity then to build on those once our students leave our K-12 settings and transition into and with life skills.
Brittanie Wilson: Thank you, Commissioner Mueller. I really appreciated a lot of your answers there, and something that kind of hit me was talking about how access is the floor. And I just think about how, yeah, it really is kind of that bare minimum. So, I really appreciate that.
Next, we have Commissioner Jodi Harpstead from the Department of Human Services. And same thing, introducing yourself and telling us how your department currently serves the disability community and what your goals are to help impact the lives of Minnesotans with disabilities.
Commissioner Harpstead: Thank you, Brittanie. I’m Jodi Harpstead, the Commissioner at the Department of Human Services. I have short light hair because I got my first professional haircut last evening since November. My pronouns are she/her/hers and I’m wearing a red sweater, a black jacket, and a colorful necklace and sitting in front of my dining room curtain.
Thank you so much for the Council for the forum. It’s great to have the opportunity to touch base on this important work. Minnesotans with disabilities bring a tremendous amount to their communities. At D.H.S. we strive to help people live as independently as possible and integrated into the community so they can continue to be a part of and enrich all of our lives. Our overall goal is to be person-centered. We focus on people, not programs, a long-standing core value at D.H.S. We work with numerous partners, many gathered here today, to pursue that goal.
Our services include providing health care coverage to people with disabilities, home care supports, housing support, adult foster care, day training and habilitation, and many others. These programs support a variety of people in our communities including, those with physical challenges, autism spectrum disorder, those with visual impairments, and those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
DHS also provides Disability Hub Minnesota, which is a critical tool for people with disabilities. We’re building tools and resources for people on Disability Hub to help them identify options and make informed choices about housing, employment, and other important aspects of life.
We also work with counties, tribes, and other state agencies to align policies and procedures to make it easier for people to navigate the system in ways that work best for them.
Looking forward, we’re engaged in major reforms. Some of our biggest initiatives aim to increase personal choice and control, including expanded options for people to act as the employer of their own support staff and to own or lease their own homes. The kids of the past couple of generations who grew up mainstreamed in our public schools may be less inclined to live in group homes with three other people with disabilities or to work at day centers. We need to build out their options to give everyone the widest range of choice.
Trevor Turner: Thank you so much, Commissioner Harpstead. We really appreciate you being here. And ready to get this discussion started.
Last, but certainly not least, is Commissioner Jan Malcolm of the Department of Health. She’s here with us today. And Commissioner Malcolm, please introduce yourself and how does the Department of Health current serve the disability community and what are your goals to improve the lives of Minnesotans with disabilities?
Commissioner Malcolm: Thanks, Trevor, and hello, everyone. I’m Jan Malcolm. I am the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health. I am a white woman with hair that used to be blond but is now gray. I’m wearing glasses, a maroon t-shirt, and a white light sweater over that. I am sitting in my home office in southwestern Minneapolis. With a very bright blue background to cheer me up on days when I need cheering.
Here at the Minnesota Department of Health, our mission is to protect and maintain and improve the health of all Minnesotans, underline the word “All.” We also have a vision, though of health equity, where all individuals have what they need to live their fullest, freest, most independent and healthy lives, and all communities have what they need to thrive, free from systemic barriers that get in the way of the people’s ability to live their fullest, healthiest lives.
And my colleagues in the other agencies have touched on a lot of these points, and certainly we cannot talk about health without talking about what really produced health, which is not just the ability to get to the doctor or the hospital, as important as that is, and be free of access barriers to get health care services, but health is really about all these other things. Being educated. Having good work that is fulfilling. Living where you want. Living free of discrimination. So, all of those things produce health. And a lack of those things are barriers to good health.
So, we very much embrace all of the good work of our sister agencies. We have a lot of specific initiatives going on. Specifically, to serve the disability community. Certainly, the last year and a half, we have all been impacted by the COVID pandemic. But my agency, fully about 80% of our staff, have been reallocated to fighting this pandemic and working directly on the COVID response. It has given us new opportunities and new needs to connect with the disability community, and I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons from COVID that we need to embed in our policies and practices going forward.
We created a specific disability unit within our COVID response structure to make sure that we were really understanding and responding to the needs of people with disabilities, whether it came to getting tested for COVID in accessible ways, getting health care services, and now lately getting vaccinations, and the branch of folks that have been working specifically with the disability community are doing some planning right now about how to embed some of that learning into our work going forward.
We certainly have learned that we don’t have all the data that we need on people with disabilities. We collect a lot of data. Our health care providers do. And we do in state government. We don’t always break that data down with more contextual information about disabilities that individuals may also be facing. So that is something we’re committed to be continuing to work on.
Commissioner Mueller mentioned, and David mentioned in his introduction, the importance of making sure that we can screen early in life all –
Our youngest persons with disabilities across all types of disability to do that early screening, to get individuals and families connected to the supports that they need. In fact, we just launched a new website called “Help Me Connect.” This is an online tool that helps families, all the way to – during pregnancy and early parenting – to help those folks with young children, including those with special needs, find specific supports that they need in their local communities. That website is https://helpmeconnect.web.health.state.mn.us/HelpMeConnect, and “Help Me Connect” is all one word with no spacing.
We have a center for health promotion in the Health Department that has just applied for some additional funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, specifically to work to improve the health of people with a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities and mobility limitations. And that will allow us to continue to work more as a system change –
At the system change level, specifically working with the Department of Human Services and the Disability Hub that Commissioner Harpstead mentioned to increase access to health and wellness resources for people with disabilities.
So, again, I just want to thank you. Thank the Council for pulling together this forum. It’s right that we are talking about what we’ve learned, about the needs of people with disabilities and how we can improve our collaboration going forward.
Trevor Turner: Thank you so much Commissioner Malcolm.
I want to thank all of you for joining us. And when I was preparing for this event, I was told that, you know, getting five Commissioners in a room to talk about disability issues has not happened very often. So, I’m looking forward to this discussion. This will be a discussion, so, you know, we’ll definitely give you each an opportunity to answer each question. But, you know, if you feel that you have something else, you’d like to say after another Commissioner has spoken, please by all means, go ahead and speak and answer the question.
So, thank you all again. So, I’m going to go ahead and give Brittanie the honors of starting the first question. So, Brittanie, will you kick us off?
Brittanie Wilson: I sure will. And thank you, Trevor. So, as we’ve kind of spoken about throughout this talk so far, we’ve spoken about how through —
As we grow through life, really, a person with a disability can and will most likely come into contact with all of your agencies. And so, my question is, how can your state agencies recognize the way that your agencies intersect with services, and how can we work together to improve the interactive experience for Minnesotans with disabilities?
And anyone can start.
Commissioner Mueller: This is Heather Mueller, with the Department of Education, so I’ll start and I’m sure our colleagues will be able to jump in as well. I think one of the things that’s really important is that as a leader, Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan have really identified the need for us to be able to collaborate and to not have silos and really has built a strategic plan for our approach to our work to really do exactly what you’ve talked about, Brittanie, is to ensure that the services that we’re providing for our communities really is seamless and that it feels as though –
As we have the opportunity to interact –
That they are having the services provided really in a one – in a more of a one-stop shop instead of having to try to figure out and really walk through a number of different processes that each agency might have. It looks a little bit different.
And I think what I appreciate about my colleagues who are on this call is I think that’s something that they’ve really been consistently committed to is being able to really look at places where we have intersected and that really has come from the Governor.
I know from the Department of Education, you know, we recognize that our work together really improves that interactive experience for our Minnesotans with disabilities. And there are a number of efforts that we’re engaged in by thinking about employment first, improving rates of competitive integrated employment for young adults with disabilities, with our partnership –
One of the partnerships with D.E.E.D. and D.H.S., also looking at a person-centered planning and practices that support choice, self-determination, and inclusion for students who are also receiving special education services both in schools as well as in their communities. It is something that we partner with our Department of Health colleagues, as well as D.H.S. Thinking about building a school district capacity to really think about health-related services and supports for students with disabilities through Medicaid funding. Also as partnerships with D.H.S. and M.D.H.
And there’s a whole, you know, host of others that as we really think this through, I think there are ways that we are recognizing that the populations of people that we serve are actually the exact same populations of people and just like our students don’t come in pieces, neither do our communities. And so, recognizing that our work together is to ensure that we’re serving the entirety of the person and not just individual components of the person.
Commissioner Harpstead: This is Commissioner Harpstead from D.H.S. I would add that one of the ways we collaborate across agencies is through the Olmsted subcabinet, designed to bring agencies together across state government. This year we’ve been moving beyond court-ordered quarterly metrics to a set of subcabinet-written objectives to support people living their fullest lives in community. We discuss these objectives and our progress on them at every quarterly meeting and by doing so across agencies, we all get to learn more about what the other agencies are doing and how we might intersect with them.
The Olmsted Integration Office, who collaborates or coordinates all of that also conducts community listening sessions that center individuals, not individual agencies. And then brings feedback back to the agencies who can best respond to what they’ve heard out in community. We’re also invited to those listening sessions so we can hear how things are going for people out in our communities.
Commissioner Malcolm: And this is Jan from the Health Department. And I will just add –
I talked before about the fact that what really produced health is the intersection of all those other factors and not just medical care. As important as that is.
And just the only other comment I’d make I think is that all of us, I think, in these agencies who are working together as Commissioner Mueller described under kind of an integrated strategic plan from the Walz-Flanagan administration. Lieutenant Governor Flanagan often says, you know, people don’t come in parts. People aren’t just one thing or the other. People are a mix of many – of many needs and many interests. And that is surely true of people with disabilities as well. That people with disabilities have intersecting identities themselves. And it’s important for us to recognize the whole person and to support the whole person.
Commissioner Grove: I would just add briefly to the great comments of my colleagues that, you know, for any given Minnesotan, they don’t think of state government as a series of different departments they want to navigate. They just think of it as government. And so how you navigate government is a question that I think we as leaders in government need to ask ourselves every day and take more of a human-centered design approach to what a customer might need in their journey through a series of government services is so important.
One of the things we’ve tried to do at D.E.E.D. is we built an innovation lab here internally for us to really focus on customer innovation. How do you help the customer experience be more effective, not just at D.E.E.D., but any experience they might have that touches employment or touches the economy?
And so that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to do under the Governor’s leadership, is to take a different look at how we might get this right and already I think we’ve yielded some new results how we work with D.H.S., for example, as people transfer between programs, how they move up into employment and job seeking within our agency and I think more to come.
But it’s an important question, and we just need to focus on the customer, who is the person with disabilities and what they need from the state.
Commissioner Lucero: I think one thing that I’ll add is that there are a lot of systems behind the scenes that make it –
No matter all of our good intentions to want to do all of this collaboration – that make it very challenging sometimes. And so, we’re always looking for ways to figure out how to change that.
And I think a really good example is the Data Practices Act, for instance, for very good reasons, is protecting everyone’s privacy. And so, it can be a challenge sometimes to share information from, for instance, say this person doesn’t have a job, and so their housing is threatened, to share with Minnesota Housing, and Department of Employment and Economic Development. And in fact, the reason they lost their job is because of a disability –
I’m sorry – a discrimination situation, so to share that with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. And the data practices actually makes it very challenging to share that between agencies. And so, because the Governor and Lieutenant Governor have said, figure out how to collaborate and how to actually break those barriers down, we’ve been able to be really creative.
And so for some agencies, we’ve entered into, like, different M.O.U.s or different contracts that allow us different ways to share information that can be really helpful while protecting information that needs to be very much protected. And so, we’re looking at the systems that are in place that can create that – the more wraparound customer-centered experience that needs to exist.
The intention is there. The work behind it is what we’re working on every day.
Trevor Turner: Thank you so much. I’m really glad that you brought up how intersectional the relationship between just one person, for example, of losing their job because of discrimination, and then having their housing threatened and all that kind of thing and that is something that people with disabilities often face. It’s kind of like a chain of events.
And we – obviously people with disabilities interact with all state agencies in one way or another. But the five of you represent state agencies that are really critical for a lot of people with disabilities.
So, again, thank you all for coming and giving those answers.
So, our next question is actually a video question that was submitted to us by Lance Hegland. Lance is a person who relies on direct support services. And he’s a disability activist. And we’re going to cue up the video now. And when the video starts playing, there will be Lance, who is a man with a dark buzz cut hair wearing a brown t-shirt. And he’s sitting in his living room with the kitchen in the background.
So, let’s hear from Lance.
Lance Hegland: As a Minnesotan with a disability who relies on direct support services to survive, I hope our state Commissioners will address some of the widespread complex challenges facing Minnesota’s disability and aging communities during the upcoming Minnesota Council on Disability Commissioner’s Roundtable being held Wednesday, June 2nd, 2021, from noon until 1:00p.m.
For example, our direct support workforce crisis. We’ve known about the growing shortage of available and reliable support workers, combined with the increasing need for supports across Minnesota, for at least 15 years. The shortage has become a crisis for many Minnesotans, especially for those of us relying on supports to survive. Workers delivering supports, our provider organizations, our families, our friends, and our communities.
Many of us have experienced harm to our health, safety, dignity, plus our ability to consistently and reliably participate with our families, friends, communities, and employment. Some people have lost their lives, been seriously injured, or been traumatized. Some have lost their homes, have needed to seek shelter in more restrictive, less private, and less inclusive settings. Many more of us experience immediate risk of a similar fate.
Support workers, especially in more urban areas like the Twin Cities, Rochester, St. Cloud, and Duluth, often do not receive competitive or livable compensation for the vital supports they deliver on behalf of our society, causing them to fall deeper into debt and poverty.
Our family members, friends, and neighbors occasionally need to unexpectedly help us when our support workers are unavailable, ill, injured, or suddenly quit. This deprives our family members, friends, and neighbors of their ability to consistently and reliably participate with their families, friends, communities, and employment.
Ultimately our workforce crisis has caused our vital support systems to become inconsistent and unreliable for many Minnesotans. The State of Minnesota constitution says that every person is entitled to a certain remedy in the laws for all injuries or wrongs which that person may receive to their person, property, or character, and to obtain justice, freely and without purchase, completely and without denial, promptly and without delay, conformable to the laws. Our state constitution also says that no member of this state shall be disenfranchised or deprived of any of the rights or privileges secured to any citizen thereof unless by the law of the land or judgment of their peers.
So I ask our Commissioners, as leaders appointed by our elected Governor, and accountable to our elected state legislators, to act on our behalf, how will you restore justice for those of us who have been harmed or experienced significantly increased risks to our health, safety, dignity, plus, ability to consistently and reliably participate with our family, friends, communities, and employment? How will you reduce the widespread immediate jeopardy throughout Minnesota for those of us relying on supports to survive – workers deliver their vital supports, our provider organizations, plus our families, friends, and communities?
What policies will you implement besides hosting meetings and providing information?
Trevor Turner: I want to thank Lance for submitting that question. And I want to acknowledge the last thing that he said is how will we, you know, move towards action, and besides just hosting meetings. And I recognize the irony that we are just hosting a meeting to talk about disabilities.
So, I do want to, you know, show my commitment as a –
Minnesota Council on Disability, we are a state agency. And so, I would like to commit to deepening our relationship with the different state agencies to improve some of the things that Lance was talking about.
And I know that Lance mentioned direct support care, which would probably fall more under the Human Services side of things, but I think this is something that, you know – what can all the other agencies do to help address this issue, which so many people with disabilities rely on direct support personnel? And I’ll let anyone give a chance to chime in on that one.
Commissioner Harpstead: This Jodi Harpstead, the Commissioner of the Department of Human Services. We know that we had workforce shortage issues before COVID and coming out of COVID, we still have to see how things are going to look when it comes to workforce shortages throughout the state in lots of different sectors.
We are grateful that over the years, we’ve been able to implement an inflation factor to the D.W.R.S. rate system that pays direct support professionals additional compensation over the years, instead of leaving it flat and depending on a particular bill to pass a wage increase. So, we’re grateful for that. There are also bills running through the legislature right now that would increase wages for PCAs. And so we’re very much aware of the concern about workforce shortages and needing to be sure that people are well compensated to go into this very special, sacred work, and working to do what we can to continue making sure that the budget contains those provisions to continue to support this sector.
Commissioner Grove: Yeah, Lance, I would just piggy-back off of Jodi’s important comments to say we here at the Department of Employment and Economic Development also understand some of the labor shortages you’re pointing out. And you’re right, it’s been around, not just a couple years, it’s been around 15 years, the shortage of PCAs in our state.
And in addition to the great work that the D.H.S. is doing on this front, D.E.E.D. is very focused on reaching out to firms who hire PCAs and making direct connections to job seekers. We hold lots of virtual job fairs where literally in the job fair itself, people get jobs in these roles. We have a campaign called “Good Jobs Now” that is highlighting roles like the ones you mentioned as available in spades across the state.
And then I think something that we haven’t landed yet but need to keep fighting for is some kind of pay increases for essential workers more broadly and I think that’s something this legislative session the Governor and Lieutenant Governor have asked us to push. Obviously that’s a legislative change. We would need our friends in legislature to agree with. But in addition to the PCA wage rate changes that Commissioner Harpstead mentioned, we also are just looking at essential worker pay in general, which has never been more important than it has been this last year of the pandemic.
So really powerful question and statements, Lance. Thank you for that.
Commissioner Mueller: And this is Heather Mueller with the Department of Education. I think one of the other things that we know is that in our –
Especially in our K-12 setting but specifically in our high schools that our students are the pipeline to employment. And recognizing that our ability and opportunity to offer job shadows, internships, apprenticeships, really looking at career pathways in a variety of fields, but specifically in the area of health care, and looking beyond what people would identify, specifically first and foremost in health care, but recognizing there are a lot of positions that exist within that.
And so those are some of the pieces we are looking at is ways within the K-12 setting to be able to expand access and opportunities for students to participate and engage in professions that give them the opportunity and a glimpse to see what that work looks like and to find their passion in what they’re doing.
And so, a PCA is an incredibly important and vital role, as we’ve talked about, and for 15 years to not have that is something that we recognize-
That a pillar of the – of our economy is based in health. And so, our – for us to be able to build that pathway for our students in a variety of ways continues to be really important. And so that’s a place where we know that we are consistently trying to build out opportunities throughout –
Not only really also looking at by demographics of students but by the geography of our students as well.
Trevor Turner: Okay, well, thank you so much.
Commissioner Malcolm: – from the Health Department, and the only thing I would add, I think our role would probably be more on interacting with health care providers in our various programs that are aimed at helping to spread best practices throughout the provider community, and as I mentioned, we’ve just learned a lot of best practices in accessibility through the COVID pandemic. So, making sure that we are incorporating that learning into our various programs and our ways of regulating certain health care provider settings is one way that we can contribute.
Trevor Turner: Thank you.
And, Commissioner Lucero, I know that, typically, you know, direct support people are not normally considered a human rights issue, but can you think of any ways that the Department of Human Rights would be able to kind of address this issue, and what can the Department of Human Rights do to ensure that people have the right to direct supports professionals?
Commissioner Lucero: Sure, so under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, if people feel like they’re being discriminated against because of a disability, they are certainly welcome to contact our agency and speak to an investigator and see if there’s something that our agency can help with. When it comes to, you know, the right to health care, the right to clean water, the right to a PCA, that’s something that we are really going to defer to the other state agencies to take a lead on since they’re the service providers themselves in those agencies, and we’re the enforcement arm for discrimination itself. And that’s what the legislators have given purview for our agency around it.
However, when we do see discrimination cases arise, we do move on those. You know, one of the cases that we talk the most about with legislators this past year was a case about Laura. She’s a woman who has a disability-related injury from her time in the military. And she was not able to take her service animal into the workspace ever.
And so, we looked at that case. We investigated that case. And ultimately found probable cause of discrimination based on her disability. And not only worked to make sure that she was taken care of for her wrong, but that there was mechanisms in place and structures in place to make sure that that never happened again. And so, we do want to make sure that when it comes to individual workplaces, and for employers across the board, that there is accessible workplaces and that is where we have enforcement capabilities through our statute.
Trevor Turner: Thank you. I’m going to go ahead and give Brittanie the honors of doing the last question.
Brittanie Wilson: Thank you. So, as I kind of mentioned earlier, I’m really passionate about disability justice. And one thing that I notice when we enter discussions like this is that it’s rare that we actually talk about the root of disability discrimination, which is ableism. I often find that people consider disability to automatically be a bad thing, and some even have trouble saying the word disabled or disability.
And disability justice is about how we, from the beginning, are whole and worthy beings no matter our body-minds. And that, really, that disability is not a monolith. And that my experience is different from everyone else’s, but they are all valid and worthy.
And one question that I have that I think is really critical for us all to think about is hoes does your agency fight ableism? And educate the public and I would say even yourselves about the valuable contributions that Minnesotans with disabilities make?
Commissioner Grove: One of the things we try to do at D.E.E.D. is lift up employers who have fought through ableism in their own companies to hire more people with disabilities and tell those stories of the success where workers and employers make great connections. And it gives people sort of permission and helps them imagine what it might be like to focus on hiring a person who might have a disability.
I think it’s also important to focus on abilities. When those employers talk about the value they get in hiring people with disabilities, they don’t spend a lot of time talking about the disability at all.
They talk about the fact that people with disabilities have some of the best problem-solving skills you can imagine, because they’ve spent their whole lives solving problems. That they can look at issues or topics in a different way because they’ve been forced to do that in their own lives. There’s a whole host of things that these employers will tell you that we try to highlight and share with others to combat what either might be blatant or subconscious, unconscious bias in the hiring process. So, I think it’s important to work with partners and tell those stories.
And then in our agency, we want to practice what we preach and have great hiring and retention rates for people with disabilities at D.E.E.D. as well. So that’s part of the picture too.
Commissioner Harpstead: This Jodi Harpstead, the Department of Human Services. One recent example that comes to mind, Brittanie, in answer to your question, is that during COVID, we helped to craft, along with others, an executive order for the Governor to pass that addressed the issues of people with disabilities during the pandemic. It certainly suggested that people with disabilities have as much right as anyone to protection from the virus but also that they had as much right as anyone to remain out in the community to the extent that that was a safe thing to do. And so we wanted to be sure that people weren’t overprotected, but that they were treated as people who can make good decisions for themselves and to remain integrated into the community as much as was at all possible under the pandemic circumstances.
Another thing we’ve done in recent years is staffed and funded an accessibility office with a strong commitment to accessibility of the information that flows out of the department. So, all of our information is expected to flow through an accessibility lens. And not get out into our website, for example, unless it’s been checked and honed for accessibility.
Commissioner Malcolm: This is Jan again from the Health Department. You know, I think what’s really essential as Brittanie –
As you framed it, in your – the way you phrased the question. How do we not presume that there’s one definition of health? Or that experiencing a disability, which, by the way, most of us will at some point along life’s journey, that that does not equate to ill health?
That it is within our power and our responsibility to help make sure that people experiencing a wide range of conditions and disabilities and limitations have the optimal opportunity for health. And that we can focus on preventing very preventable secondary complications that arise from certain conditions.
And if we don’t understand that disability does not equal ill health –
I think we’ve seen that in health care and in the health care literature – that we fail to maximize health and to prevent preventable complications, if we don’t fundamentally understand that disability does not equal ill health. Doesn’t need to equal ill health.
Brittanie Wilson: Or if I could interject too, thinking of the medical model, that disability isn’t something that just needs to be fixed.
Commissioner Malcolm: That’s a wonderful point, Brittanie. It’s not a matter of having a disability means a deficit or means something is wrong. I had the great privilege as serving of the CEO of the Courage Center for a number of years before being at the Health Department, and I learned such a powerful set of learnings from the people who built Courage Center and who provide services there and are served there about justice.
And about just that very – that very point. That disability is not something to be cured. It is a part of life. That is to be cherished and supported. Thank you for that.
Commissioner Lucero: And I’ll build off of that, Brittanie and just talk about, you know, at the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, we care deeply about words. Words matter. And we talk about living lives full of dignity and joy. And we talk about honoring complex, beautiful identities. And we’re very intentional and mindful about how words such as –
Regardless of languages used to reinforce deficit-based language all the time. And so you’ll see words like “Regardless of somebody’s disability” or “Regardless of somebody’s race, they were successful,” and it’s always really important for us to stress that it’s because of racism, it’s because of ableism, it’s because of sexism that you struggle, and you were successful despite the -ism there, not disability, not race, not –
And in fact, it is those pieces of your complex beautiful identity that make you who you are and make you the – yeah, make you the incredible person that you show up being. So that is how we take on our work. That’s the lens that we take on our work. That is how we do the education pieces of our work.
So, for instance, when we do find discrimination, when we are working with businesses on the terms that we require as part of our settlement agreements, we are not simply requiring ending discrimination. That is, again, the floor that we’re working towards.
But we require employers to do a lot of work about cultural competency and cultural humility to learn about language and to learn about honoring identities. And because we’re building towards that together. So that is very important.
Commissioner Mueller: And this is Heather with the Department of Education and I think that, you know, as we talked about at the very beginning, one of the things we do as the Department of Education, is really strive to fight ableism and educate the public about the valuable contributions of our Minnesotans with disabilities and recognize that as our students are learning and growing in their K-12 settings, we are also working with our partners in that inter-agency –
In those inter-agency pieces to help support things like Employment First, our collaboration, and making sure that we know that our students are great and wonderful employees with tremendous skill sets who offer a great deal to every community in which they live. Not only in their work communities, but in their communities in general, and I think that one of the other pieces that we’ve recognized, similar to what Commissioner Grove talked about, is something we’re striving for internally as well is we want to be able to have our Department of Education reflective of our student population, of our family populations and Minnesota’s populations.
And so, recognizing that because of the contributions of our staff who have disabilities, because of the contributions of people with disabilities, like, we have the strength of community. And so that’s not only a goal that we have externally, but it is something that is incredibly important for us internally as well.
Trevor Turner: Thank you, Commissioner Mueller.
That is all the time that we have today. Thank you so much for taking your time to, you know, listen to the disability community, and I think that I’ll end with some parting words is that, you know, again, we appreciate that you are taking the time to listen to the disability community. But I do hope that moving forward, that not only do you listen to the disability community and listen to people with disabilities, but also bring people with disabilities to the decision-making table. We think that we have a lot to – a lot of things to offer and a lot of experience – valuable experience – that could really make things –
The state agencies really improve the experience for people with disabilities.
So, thanks again. I hope you all have a wonderful day. And we’re going to go ahead and call it a day. Have a good one.
Describer: On the screen is the Minnesota Council on Disability logo. The words: Thank you for attending the Minnesota Council on Disability’s Commissioners’ Roundtable discussion. To contribute to the MCD policy priorities for the 2022 legislative session, please complete a survey.
For more information about the Minnesota Council on Disability’s 2022 legislative priorities, or to offer feedback for this Commissioners’ Roundtable event, contact Trevor Turner, MCD Public Policy Director. You can reach him by email at Trevor.Turner@state.mn.us or 651-350-8642.