Texans with disabilities are looking to the Legislature for new laws and funding they believe would improve their lives. Issues range from better pay for attendant care to reduced use of physical restraint of disabled students in the classroom. And like so many others at the Capitol, disability advocates have their eyes on the state’s $33 billion budget surplus.
This session, groups are working together to advance both old and new priorities. The Texas Standard’s Shelly Brisbin says the issue of pay for attendants has been around for some time, but it’s becoming more urgent as wages for other workers rise. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: We’ve talked before about attendant care in Texas. People with disabilities say the low wages the state pays attendants is causing a severe shortage. Tell us a little bit more about who relies on attendant care and what advocates are hoping the Legislature will do to address the shortfall.
Shelly Brisbin: Attendants provide in-home assistance with personal care tasks – bathing, dressing, transferring from a wheelchair. And attendants make a base salary of $8.11 an hour, which advocates say is less than half of what a fast food worker can make today. So many attendants quit, and people who rely on this care have trouble finding folks who can replace them, especially skilled people who are willing to work for such a low wage. And the alternative to attendant care could often be a nursing home, which no one wants. So disability groups are seeking a pay raise for attendants to $15 an hour or more just to stay competitive.
Well, obviously, many folks around the state would like to share that budget surplus this session. How much would it cost the state to raise attendant wages to that $15-an-hour benchmark you were talking about?
Something like 300,000 Texans rely on attendant care that is paid for through several state programs. And one estimate says it could cost $2.6 billion to raise pay to $15 an hour, plus more for automatic adjustments to wages over time.
I understand that just getting access to the programs that provide attendant care and other services can be a challenge unto itself, right?
Yes. Texas has years-long waiting lists for Medicaid waiver programs that fund the kinds of services that many with disabilities rely on. And advocates would like more funding to decrease that backlog.
A lot of parents are concerned about the use of physical restraint of disabled students in the classroom. In fact, I gather there are some bills that have been filed already that would roll back teachers’ ability to restrain a child in school. What do you know about that?
When students with disabilities experience behavior issues in classrooms, they can be physically restrained by staff members. Advocates and parents of disabled kids who say their children have been harmed by these restraints held a press conference at the Capitol yesterday to bring attention to this issue. They say their children have been strapped down, confined in dark rooms and even kicked and punched by school staff members. Advocates say there’s a lack of transparency when it comes to these incidents and that school staff has immunity from consequences.
So parents and advocates are not only seeking more access to the information that’s already available, but notification to parents when cameras are present in classrooms so that they can review footage in the case of an incident involving their child. Parents say they don’t often know what’s happening in those classrooms, even when cameras are present. Houston Republican Lacey Hull has filed a bill she calls “no kids in cuffs,” which would outlaw physical restraints for students 10 years old or younger. Hull has support from disability rights groups. And there’s also a companion bill in the Senate.
And bipartisan support?
Yes, very much so. Hull is a Republican, but she had several Democrats with her on stage. And the sponsor of the bill in the Senate is also a Democrat.
Tell us a little bit about some of the other issues that disability groups have on their agendas this session.
Revision to the state’s guardianship system is another topic I heard about. It’s often difficult, advocates say, for a person who has been placed under guardianship to get that status changed in court.
Another topic on people’s minds is voting. Some of last session’s changes to voting laws impacted how disabled voters get assistance at the polls – courts have intervened in that case. But advocates say they want to be sure that any additional changes to in-person or mail-in ballot laws this time around don’t impact disabled voters in a negative way.