Vt. Statehouse Disability Awareness Day canceled

Published: Mar. 12, 2020 at 8:31 AM EDT
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Disability Awareness Day is an annual event that draws more than 300 people to the Vermont Statehouse every year.

But this year, group leaders canceled because they say they couldn't risk people who are more susceptible getting sick.

"I was disappointed, but overall I support the decision," said Zachary Hughes of Montpelier.

Hughes says he understands the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights wants to limit the spread of coronavirus, but other event attendees tell him they still wish they had the option to go.

He says a good thing that has come out of this is that people are considering precautions those with disabilities experience every day to keep themselves healthy.

"Everyone who's lived in these categories of asthma, heart problems, they know enough to exercise judgement about it, know very well what they can take the risk of and what they can't take the risk of," said Hughes.

That includes things like shaking hands and sharing food. And he says acknowledging Disability Awareness Day amid coronavirus concerns is an opportunity to initiate conversations about equality.

"It's really about connecting that lived experience with legislators," said Sarah Launderville, the president of Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights.

Launderville and the advocacy groups running the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights canceled the event. She says because of coronavirus, state leaders are talking about policies her organization pushes daily.

"So now we're really having conversations around paid leave -- being out of the office, telecommuting, that sort of thing. People with disabilities have been having a really hard time accessing jobs for years, and have asked for reasonable accommodations to be able to work from home occasionally, and businesses really haven't bought into that or even showed any interest in it. Now all of a sudden because there is a crisis, we're starting to see movement in that," said Launderville.

She also wants to remind people that leaving that extra bottle of hand sanitizer or package of disinfecting wipes on the shelf could save someone who's more vulnerable and doesn't have the means to stock up on supplies.

"The people who really, really need that in order to stay safe, to be able to stay safe in our society, are not having access to that," said Launderville.

Ultimately, disability right advocates advise people to live their lives as normally as possible, with precautions in mind.

"This is the same thing with hand washing. We've always known hand washing is good, until now, we really know," said Hughes.

The organization says the most vulnerable communities, those with underlying health conditions, are sometimes left out of the conversation.

"I'll see articles or statements that really talk about general population, but not also talking about people who have asthma, who have heart conditions, who have diabetes, that are at greater risk for developing longer symptoms, including death. We've seen those are the people that are just at greater risk," said Launderville.

The Vermont Center for Independent Living says it's important coronavirus information is as inclusive as possible, from using simple language and pictures for people with intellectual disabilities, to putting captions on videos for people who are hard of hearing.

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