“We need to be at the table”: Texans with disabilities worry changes in legislative process during the pandemic could shut them out

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Ricky Broussard has spent 10 legislative sessions advocating for disability rights — more support for Texans with disabilities like him who want to live independently, greater accessibility in transportation and better job training.

Unlike other special interests competing for the attention of lawmakers, he doesn’t rely on a paid lobbyist. The 52-year-old's greatest message is his own. Broussard, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, spent 29 years in group homes across the state hoping to get off a waitlist before finally receiving state support to live by himself.

Because of the pandemic, access to the state Capitol could be limited this year: Many Texans with disabilities, including Broussard, do not want to risk testifying in person. With uncertain rules on virtual testimony, and at such an urgent and precarious time, many worry pandemic process changes could leave them out of an all-important session focused on managing a virus that has killed people with disabilities at uniquely high rates.

“We need to be at the table, from the beginning all the way through the end, because nobody don't know me like I know myself,” Broussard said. “But I’m not going to go to the Capitol until I get a shot” — referring to the vaccine.

Instead, advocates for those with disabilities and some lawmakers worry that high-profile lobbyists will have the ears of the policy makers if virtual testimony is limited and in-person visits remain the norm. The clock is running out to find a solution just two weeks from the start of the session. Asked whether Dade Phelan, the presumptive state House speaker, would commit to supporting virtual testimony, which people with disabilities and advocates for disability rights say is critical to them having a voice in government, a Phelan spokesperson, said only the process will be "member-driven."

The House "encourages public participation and promotes openness and transparency to the fullest extent possible," said Enrique Marquez, the spokesperson, adding that members will "weigh in and vote upon these matters once the 87th Legislature convenes."

Advocates worry that a lack of commitment to virtual access could spell trouble.

“Our fear is that legislative leaders will use the pandemic to limit access,” said Dan Quinn, the research director and press secretary for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit social justice organization. “We can’t let people just disappear here in the middle of a pandemic. They have to be heard. They have a right to be heard.”