U hosts disability talks at Radisson

by Bryce Haugen

More than 85 people, from interested citizens to University faculty and staff, met at the Radisson Metrodome on Wednesday morning to discuss “The Economics of Disability.”

During the four-hour conference, attendees heard personal vignettes from disabled people. They also participated in a panel discussion about disability issues.

Wednesday’s event was the second in a five-part series that the University’s Center on Aging presented. The series is a part of the University’s attempt “to facilitate more of a dialogue between the community and the University on the topic of disability,” said Center on Aging Director Bob Kane, who moderated the discussion.

“This is one of the underexplored issues of our time,” Kane said.

He said he hopes the conferences increase the visibility of disabled issues. In the long-term, that will hopefully lead to more research and the creation of a University disabilities studies program, he said.

The five expert panelists ¯ four who shared their stories ¯ and the audience, spent most of the morning discussing disability’s economic implications for the public and private sectors. Some participants said budget cuts have hurt disabled people across the state.

“Hennepin County services were great until the funding was cut,” said audience member and Minneapolis resident Linda Tedford, who has a disabled son.

Kane said disabled citizens would be better served if they could choose how to spend the money the government gives them.

Because of the current budget cuts, “programs are shadows of their former selves,” he said.

Supporting disabled citizens isn’t seen as the moral imperative it should be, said panelist Sam Myers, a Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs professor.

“Rather, disabled people are competing (for funding) with others in society,” he said.

Discussion participants also talked about disability in the workplace.

Audience member Chris Bell, a self-described former “policy wonk” who helped write regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act, said it is in corporations’ best interest to support disabled employees

In a macro-economic sense, keeping disabled people employed instead of simply providing them benefits saves companies money, said Bell, who is blind. But he said lower-level managers usually prefer to deal with low-maintenance, nondisabled employees.

“That’s changing the corporate culture and that has to be done from the top,” he said.

Some participants said companies should start emphasizing disability sensitivity.

“If you have a diversity program that doesn’t include people with disabilities, then you’ve missed the boat,” said panelist Kenneth Brown, a business owner and University alumnus who is partially paralyzed on the left side of his body.

At the end of the conference, John Tschida, the vice president for public affairs and research at the Courage Center, offered a closing summary and “call to action.”

“It’s up to folks like us Ö to move the debate forward,” he said.