The Arc of New Jersey Brings Issues Facing People with Disabilities to the White House, President Obama Tells Disability Community “I’ve Got Your Back”
Washington, DC – On Friday, February 10th, seven leaders of The Arc in New Jersey joined 150 of their colleagues from across the country to meet with a variety of senior White House officials at a Community Leaders Briefing 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.” Members of the New Jersey delegation included Thomas Baffuto, Executive Director of The Arc of NJ; Walter Bender, President and Bruce Bird, Immediate Past President of The Arc of NJ; Barbara Coppens, President of the NJ Statewide Self-Advocacy Network; James Gallagher, President and William Testa, Executive Director of The Arc Morris County; and Robert Pruznick, Executive Director, The Arc of Warren County.
The 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 New Jersey 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.
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 was an exceptional opportunity to talk openly with some of the highest ranking officials about how their decisions in Washington affect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in every community” stated Walter Bender, President of The Arc of New Jersey. “Having President Obama pledge his support in a very rare appearance at the briefing sends a strong message that the concerns of people with disabilities are critical.”
The Arc advocates for and serves people with I/DD, including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 700 chapters across the country, including 20 in New Jersey serving all 21 counties. The Arc promotes and protects the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.