By Melanie Ong and Martina Penalosa, MCDD Trainees
As trainees of the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities (MCDD), we were offered the wonderful opportunity to participate in Developmental Disabilities Day at the Legislature (DD Day). We are happy to share what we learned with reflections about our first time experience.
Every year, the Maryland Developmental Disabilities (MDD) Coalition sponsors DD Day. On this day, participants come together to educate legislators about issues that are important to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families. This year, DD Day was held on February 22, 2023. Along with a group of advocates, faculty and staff from Kennedy Krieger Institute, we rode a sponsored bus that took us to the Graduate Hotel in Annapolis, Maryland. Upon arrival, the first thing that immediately struck us was the excitement and energy coming from the hundreds of people gathered. People with and without disabilities, family members, service providers, direct support professionals, advocates and allies were in attendance. It was powerful to see everyone on this day, supporting one another with a united front, mission and cause.
We were greeted with breakfast and the day immediately began with welcome speeches given by Maryland senators, delegates, the governor and lieutenant governor, and leaders from the IDD community. To see legislators and the IDD community come together was inspiring and exciting. We could feel the momentum and support for disability rights and how effective advocacy could create change. In addition to opening remarks, the DD Coalition provided us with updates to the budget for the 2024 fiscal year for the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) in the Maryland Department of Health. As a community, we also listened to a briefing on priority legislation to be aware of so that we could be prepared to share information with legislators when we met with them. We discussed legislation for a variety of disability rights topics, including voting rights, supporting children and adults with disabilities and their families, and promoting fair wages through the Fair Wage Act of 2023 (HB549/SB555). Given that it was our first time speaking to legislators and there was so much to cover, it was easy to feel excited but also overwhelmed with the advocacy work to be done. It was helpful to have briefings and fact sheets to help us learn about the priority legislation while also staying organized and prepared. Program remarks concluded with an award ceremony for students from varying elementary, middle and high schools presenting lovely artwork focused on diversity and inclusion.
During the second half of the day, people divided into smaller groups at the Maryland State House and the Maryland House of Delegates. There, community advocates had the opportunity to meet in person with individual legislators or their staff to discuss current bills for review and examination, and express support for legislation that promoted greater inclusion of people with disabilities. We accompanied three members from People On the Go Maryland (POG), a statewide self-advocacy group run for and by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as two doctoral student interns from Kennedy Krieger. As a united team of seven people, we met Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes at her office. Together, we were able to promote priority legislation bills to support equal access to voting rights, increased support for individuals, caregivers, and families, and amending the Fair Wage Act of 2023 to add a rate increase for IDD services no less than the annual inflationary increase to the minimum wage. Some of these bills we discussed included curbside voting, increasing the age range for access to creating an ABLE account (a tax-advantaged saving account for individuals with disabilities and their families) from age 26 to age 46, and shifting the burden of proof in special education to the schools. POG members were very impactful, sharing their own personal experiences and stories. Delegate Sample-Hughes was very receptive to our input and was in fact very interested to hear more about the Fair Wage Act amendment and the personal experiences of one POG member. Delegate Sample-Hughes initially did not sign on the bill, but after a self-advocate shared their experiences and how the bill and amendment would impact the IDD community, she afterwards felt more open and prepared to discuss it with the House moving forward and expressed her appreciation for the POG member sharing their experience. Afterwards, we celebrated and wrapped up the day by having lunch and a debrief session at Mission BBQ.
These experiences of attending a legislative hearing for the first time, seeing the outcomes and impact of advocacy work, and having the opportunity to be a part of this day were both eye-opening and memorable and are something we will always cherish. Being in that room, feeling the hope, conviction, energy and power of advocates and allies alike who were fighting for the rights and empowerment of the IDD community really showed the value of standing up for what you believe in. Using one’s voice can go a long way in helping shape the society and community we want to live in. It was also inspiring to see the faces of those who were in power to enact bills and help enforce these values of inclusion and empowerment by listening to their constituents and the IDD community’s needs while doing what they could to support. Overall, we were very encouraged to see that there were many others out there who believed in the same thing we do and who go miles to make a difference. Advocacy starts with the individual, but momentum skyrockets with the power of a whole community. The significance of one person’s voice, story and experience is amplified one thousand-fold when there are hundreds of people coming together, supporting one another, and working towards a world and community where all people are provided with the tools and resources they need to succeed and live happy, healthy lives.
Pictured: Dr. Mirian Ofonedu, Martina Penalosa, Melanie Ong
Pictured: Dr. Mirian Ofonedu and Governor Wes Moore
Pictured: Dr. Mirian Ofonedu, Lt. Governor Aruna Miller, Maureen van Stone
Pictured: Maureen van Stone, Hannah Walcoe, Tracy Hincke, Dr. Miya Asato, Jennifer Falter