Candidates address critical subjects at 5th District Forum on Disability Issues

On the first day of Early Voting for the 5th Congressional District Special Election, 14 candidates competing for the seat left vacant by Rahm Emanuel participated in a Candidates Forum on Disability Issues. Sponsored by eleven disability groups that represent people in the 5th District, the February 16 Forum asked candidates to share how, if elected, they would create opportunities for people with disabilities in areas such as education, housing, health care, employment and transportation. About 150 people attended the forum, moderated by Kevin Roy of ABC Channel 7.

Candidates opened the forum by delivering opening statements, followed by questions from the moderator and the audience. After the opening statements, Roy asked each candidate if he or she, if elected, would support the Community Choice Act. The legislation is designed to expand choices available to people with disabilities, enabling them to receive support services in their own homes rather than an institution. The Community Choice Act is particularly important to people in Illinois, which has a long record of favoring institutional services over community based services. In hand writing large enough for most of those in attendance to see, all 14 candidates signed a pledge form standing in front of the audience, vowing to co-sponsor the legislation if elected to Congress.

“Thousands of people with disabilities in Illinois are forced to live in institutions because there are not enough community services available,” said Samuel Martorano, a former nursing home resident who struggled for nearly a year to find a place of his own in the community. “The Community Choice Act will enforce the right of people with disabilities in Illinois to receive services in communities of their choice. We are thrilled that each candidate supports the legislation.”

Jason Carrington, a 5th District Resident who is a youth advocate, asked the candidates for their support of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees equal access to education for students with disabilities. Funding for IDEA would give students with disabilities in Chicago a chance to bridge the performance gap between students with and without disabilities. “Most of the candidates pledged to support IDEA,” Carrington said. Carrington was also impressed by the way the candidates answered the questions. “The candidates took our questions seriously,” he said. “Many times, they don’t take the time to look at the disability community. Today, our voice was heard.”

The Forum was divided into two sections. Republican Candidates Gregory Bedell and Jon Stewart, and Green Candidates Mark Arnold Frederickson and Matt Reichel, participated on the first panel. Ten Democrat Candidates: Frank Annunzio, Paul Bryar, Sara Feigenholtz, Victor Forys, John Fritchey, Tom Geoghegan, Carlos A. Monteagudo, Patrick O’Connor, Mike Quigley and Charles Wheelan participated on the second panel.

In their statements and answers, the candidates shared how they would open up systems that previously have presented barriers to people with disabilities. Fran Madnick, a 5th District resident who uses personal assistant services and requires physical therapy, asked the candidates about their support of Single Payer Health Care Coverage. Speaking after the forum, Madnick said, “We need to shift the health care system in this state to ensure that people receive the coverage they need. Under Illinois’ current Medicaid system I am not fully covered. I might have to give up some of the personal assistant services in order to care for my eyes.” While not all of the candidates were in support of single payer, Madnick was happy with the way the candidates interacted with the crowd. “They didn’t act like politicians,” she said. “They tried to approach the issues from the lens of the average person.”

The Forum sponsors included: Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, the Anixter Center, Asian Human Services, C4, Chicago ADAPT, Chicago House, Equip for Equality, Howard Brown Health Center, the Institute on Disability and Human Development at UIC, Open Doors Organization and Progress Center for Independent Living.