Listen: Voting accessibility, education and transportation through the lens of disability

A special event in Austin in January continues the conversations Texas Standard began in our 2023 special report the State of Disability in Texas.

By Texas Standard StaffJanuary 24, 2024 4:13 pm, ,

On Jan. 24, 2024, Texas Standard and a panel of experts held a public conversation about some of the top issues affecting the 3.5 million Texans who live with a disability.

Texas Standard reporter/producer Shelly Brisbin, who recently hosted Texas Standard’s hour-long special, The State of Disability in Texas, led the discussion. She is a multi-time winner of Barbara Jordan Media Awards, which honor the best reporting about disability in the state.

Audio recordings of this event are made available in four parts. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

In part one, Disability Rights Texas attorney Sashi Nisankarao answers questions about legal and practical access to the voting booth for all.

A photo of an Indian American woman with long black hair sitting at a microphone and smiling.

Disability Rights Texas attorney Sashi Nisankarao speaks during KUT Considers: Disability in Texas.

In part two, Texas Parent to Parent’s Amy Litzinger talks with Brisbin about current challenges and opportunities in fully inclusive education.

Texas Parent to Parent’s Amy Litzinger speaks during KUT Considers: Disability in Texas.

Part three features community advocate Nancy Crowther on the topic of transportation — including the promise and pitfalls currently facing Central Texans as well as accessible navigation tools.

A photo shows the three panelists with Nancy Crowther in focus. She has short silver hair and is wearing a bright green t-shirt. She smiles while at the microphone.

Community advocate Nancy Crowther speaks during KUT Considers: Disability in Texas.

The Q&A portion of the event touched on all three topics of voting, education, and transportation as well as other big issues.

Texas Standard reporter and producer Shelly Brisbin leads a conversation during KUT Considers: Disability in Texas.

Explore Texas Standard’s ongoing coverage of disability in Texas.

Please continue to help inform our reporting by submitting your thoughts or questions about disability via the Texas Standard contact form.

Full event transcript:

Note: This transcript has only been lightly edited for errors. If you notice one, please feel free to alert us via the contact form above.

Laura Rice, Texas Standard Managing Producer: Hi everybody. It’s 630, so we’ll go ahead and get started. Thank you so much for coming out tonight. I am Laura Rice, managing producer for The Texas Standard. I’m a white woman in my very late 30s with long brown hair. You may be familiar, but in case not, this event has been hosted by cut 90.5 and cut org. We are, reliably Austin where Austin’s NPR station, the BBC programing. And also most importantly, I’d say our local programing, Texas Standard is what I work for. So Texas Standard is part of our local offerings. We are a statewide NPR program airing on 30 NPR stations across the state, and our job is to provide a Texas perspective of the news, which is fun to talk about, if you’d like to talk about that later. A little bit of housekeeping. First of all, thank you. To the lung Center. If you’re looking for restrooms, they are out, near the entrance by the elevators. And I hope you found the swag table. So if you’d like a koozie, European or some stickers, please take as much as you like. And also newsletter sign ups are there. We have beverages and snacks available with the long central does, I should say, to purchase behind you. And as far as accessibility goes, we’ve tried to be thoughtful, but please flag one of us if if there’s something that you need, we will keep an eye out for you. There is ASL interpretation. If that’s something that you need, please come, up to the, as you’re looking at us to the right side, towards the front. There are some, some chairs available. Thank you so much to Saint Edwards for being a sponsor of CT considers. So what is that? It is when we hopefully get out into the community and engage with you guys on topics that are of interest. Tonight we’re focused on disability, and this event stems from an hour long Texas Standard Special that we had in September. So an hour to talk about how disability affects Texans. That’s a pretty big order. And we couldn’t do it all. we’re still not going to do it all. We treated that as a kickoff to a year long, concerted effort to focus on disability in our reporting. That’s probably still not long enough. We are going to, I hope, make it a permanent part of our coverage. But I will admit, it’s been a big learning curve for many of us, and it is a huge topic and we have a lot of work to do. So we’d be very happy to hear your suggestions and your ideas. About coverage this evening. We are limited to three topics with three wonderful experts. They will each have about 10 to 15 minutes, to talk, and then we will have lots of time, for questions. We will be recording and providing the audio and a transcript, of this afterwards. We’ll make that available as soon as possible online. It is also going to air sometime this week, I’m told, on Kut in the evening, as we get that information, we’ll make that available. And, you can find all of that at Texas At the helm today is Shelly Brisbane. That’s who I’m here to introduce. She is an author, a podcast host, a tech maven and an award winning journalist, including the winner of multiple Barbara Jordan Media Awards, which are distributed by the Governor’s Committee on People with disabilities. She’s a reporter and producer for The Texas Standard, and she’s our host tonight. Please welcome Shelley Brisbane.


Shelly Brisbin, Texas Standard Reporter/Producer: Thank you, Laura. Thank you everybody for joining us. It’s so great to see so many of you here to talk about issues affecting Texans with disabilities. I can quote a lot of statistics about how many people in the state live with a disability, but numbers sometimes obscure the people behind them. Public policy or lack of it, affects real humans. And it’s often true that decisions about how we vote, how we get around, and how we receive education are not made by people who live those lives. The phrase nothing about us without us means a lot to me right now, because our panel is 100% folks with disabilities and me too. So I hope that gives more perspective to our conversation and hopefully makes my questions a little better. That’s my hope anyway. So Laura has given you a little bit on the rundown. I’m going to talk with each member of the panel about the issue that we’re here to discuss with them. And then please hold your questions to the end. And I promise you that we will have, plenty of time. And quickly, before we get started, I’m going to ask each of my panelists to, say hello to you and let me give you a little bit of a description of, what they look like in whatever way they wish to do that. And I’ll start with myself. I’m a middle-aged woman with colorless brown hair and wearing some sort of weird blue flowy thing today. But that’s me. And I’m sorry, I forgot. I did one thing I wanted to do before we get started, and then I’ll let you guys know. Introduce each of my wonderful panels. I wanted to give a shout out to all the nice folks that are here. Look, she didn’t even help us. Or we might help disorganized this event. Jim was an engineering Eisner. And also to my many colleagues from Texas and here. They’re the ones that made our session when this is going last September possible. And just as a reminder and more mention that the, Central Committee found the audio as well as transcripts and, write ups of all the art things that we talked about, the segments that we did. I can be found at Texas Standard Normal or Oregon Disability, which is also where you’ll find follow ups to the things we talked about tonight. So, let me just quickly introduce each well, you know, quickly. We’ll see. Let me just quickly introduce, each member of our panel. And, we’ll start with, I’m, I’m waiting to scroll. This is this is the other thing I should tell you if you’re interested in accessibility stuff is my notes are all on this iPad, with my wonderful teleprompter app. And I love this app. And I could not live without it, both for my radio job and for things like tonight. So if you wanted a good recommendation for teleprompter app, I got you. We just talked about the show to discuss voting rights and accessibility in Texas. It is my pleasure to welcome Sashi the sync around. She is a voting rights attorney with the Houston chapter of Houston’s Disability Rights Texas. She previously served as the senior A.D.A. compliance manager for the Harris County Election Administrator’s office, where she oversaw the entire accessible voting system. So she’s welcome to is.


Sashi Nisankarao, Disability Rights Attorney: Thank you. Glad to be here. I am an Indian American, woman in her mid 30s, and I have won a, navy blue suit, and I have medium length black hair. And I’m also really excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me.


Brisbin: Thank you. Also with us is Amy Litzinger. She is a self-advocate and a public policy lead. The Texas parent to parent, Amy was also one of our guests on our Texas Standard, disability special back in December. Back in September. That’s when it was. It wasn’t in December at all. Amy, so good to have you with us.


Amy Litzinger, Texas Parent to Parent Advocate: It’s glad I’m– It’s good to be back. Glad to be here. I am sitting in my power wheelchair and I have on a black and white striped sweater today, and I have medium length hair.


Brisbin: Our third expert is Nancy Crowther. She is an activist on transportation issues and formerly served as an accessibility transportation specialist at Capitol Metro here in Austin. Nancy, thank you so much for being here.

Nancy Crowther, Community Advocate: Thank you.

Brisbin: Sounds like you have a following.


Crowther: Oh, I didn’t pay much for that. I am probably the oldest person on this panel. I have gray silver hair, short, round face that goes with the round body. It is. It is a shame, by the way. And I’m wearing a bright green t shirt that says adapt. Of Texas free our people.


Brisbin: All right. Thank you everybody. Thank you panelists for joining us. And thank you, audience, for being here and being so enthusiastic. This is going to be great. Can’t wait. Let’s begin with voting for person with disability. The act of voting, getting to and getting an accessible ballot. Seeking assistance to the polls if needed. Accessing the polling place itself. They all figure into the way we choose our leaders. So actually, what’s the state of voting in Texas for folks with disabilities? I know that sounds like a super broad question, but I’m specifically thinking about all the various litigation that was ongoing in in 2022, 2023, and I’m wondering where that is now and what people with disabilities ought to be expecting when they try to cast their ballots this year.


Nisankarao: Yeah, it’s a good question. And there is quite a bit of, statewide, impact for litigation. And then also kind of more targeted, impact that litigation has. So I think what people around Texas are more familiar with is, the litigation around SB1, Senate Bill one, which was passed into law in late 2021. And, soon thereafter, there were quite a few, nonprofits and advocacy agencies that joined and sued on various grounds. As far as disability is concerned, I think one of the, larger issues that was litigated, had to do with assisting voters. Right. So if you’re somebody like myself who uses a white cane, if you are someone who, you know, has dexterity issues, just all kinds of disabilities, you might need assistance, you know, just marking your ballot or navigating the polling place. Right? And so there was litigation on, like, what exactly can assisting a voter be limited to just marking the ballot or directing somebody to market for you, right? Or read it to you? And, you know, the courts have maintained and this goes back all the way to 2018, that, assisting can not be limited to just marking, having someone work the ballot for you or, directing them to read it to you. Right. It’s it varies the level of assistance and the kind of assistance that people look for when they go to a polling place. And so that was one of the bigger things that came out of it. Some, some other impacts, could be found like in, Mail-In ballots. And how do you prove that it’s you, right from the time that you, are applying for a mail in ballot to when you are marking your ballot, right? How do you prove that it’s you? What kinds of information do you, do you, include that is required under Texas law to prove that it’s the same person who filled out that application, and the same person who is completing that ballot. Right. And the court has found that, you know, if you happen to use your driver’s license number on your application and then you use the last four of your Social Security number on your ballot that you can your ballot cannot be rejected because you’re using two different, numbers there, right? So things like that. And then, as far as like litigation, that’s a little bit more targeted in Bexar County, which I hope that this becomes something that other counties in Texas will learn from or adopt, you know, adapt to, adopt. In Bexar County, they have recently as, as you know, from the November election, from the November 23rd election, have instituted, remote accessible vote by mail program. So it’s it’s limited to people who are blind, who have certain visual acuity. And if they are, if they apply for a mail in ballot and they fill out that attestation, then they can complete their, their mail in ballot online, they can mark it up, they can use the screen reader, they can use a magnifier, you know, but it’s all on their computer. They print it out and then they send it back. And so we would hope that something like that would become more commonplace throughout Texas. But, you know, those are just a couple of the, big, you know, litigation pieces that are happening right now around Texas.


Brisbin: And those are still happening there. We’re waiting for results. Is that going to affect the 2024 elections, or is it are those results going to happen afterward? What do you think?


Nisankarao: So I think with Bexar County, like since they are already instituting this, it’s it’s, it’s very much alive. And, you know, they’ll keep doing it. The SB one litigation is currently, there’s some appeals happening, right? Now and it’s going to take a while, I do. I don’t think that we’re going to see, results in that case, before the at least before the November elections. I don’t think so.


Brisbin: So, as a practical matter, how is Disability Rights Texas, which is an organization that’s, among other things, very concerned with making sure that folks with disabilities can cast their ballot. How are you preparing for the 2024 elections in Texas?


Nisankarao: So, you know, we do a lot of, training. One of my colleagues, Molly, she’s here today. And then we just brought on another trainer, training across Texas to not only, you know, educate voters, but also to train election workers, right, on the kinds of assistance that you could provide or, how do you, like, maybe modify, reasonably modify a process. Right. To assist a voter? And that goes all the way from them registering to vote to once they get to the polling location or, once they are filling out an accessible ballot by mail. So we do a lot of training. Obviously dear is involved in the SB1 litigation. And then we have a voter hotline as well that, where, you know, you can call in and receive, you know, if you have like a pressing concern, will try to resolve that, timely so that, you know, if you’re at the polling place and you’re having an issue voting, hopefully we can resolve it pretty quickly. It you know, it will take some time, but we don’t want people to be turned away or feel like, you know, they they can’t cast their ballot.


Brisbin: Do you want to give out that hotline number? Do you have it memorized?


Nisankarao: Is it what Molly I’m going to guess. Is it one 800 796 vote?


Woman in Crowd: It’s close. 1888796.


Nisankarao: Okay. For those who didn’t hear that, it is 1888796 vote, which I think is 1-888-796-8683 there.


Brisbin: Yay yay. Well, see now we’ve we’ve actually given out practical information here tonight. I’m excited about that. So in general, what do you think folks with disabilities who might be concerned about ballot access in 2024 should what should they what should they know? What are the big other than that wonderful phone number you just gave out? But what what are some things that they should be aware of if there have concerns?


Nisankarao: Yeah. So a little bit of practical, knowledge I think is really helpful. Right. So in Texas there’s like two big, voting machine voting equipment companies. There’s SARS and then there’s heart. Each of them has an accessible unit. Right. And so most likely your county, wherever you’re voting throughout Texas, will have a version of these two voting machines. And, so for people like myself who when I go to vote and I don’t, you know, I prefer to vote independently, that is anyone’s right under under the law. Right is to vote privately and independently. And so I don’t want to have to depend on someone to read the ballot to me. So I use headphones that plug into an accessible device that, you know, I can navigate the ballot. And I think a lot of people don’t know that, like even people who are vision impaired don’t know that they can either bring their own headphones or use ones that are provided at the polling place to do this. And, you know, they may get discouraged from, from voting in person. And so that’s one thing, but that same accessible device that plugs into the machine, you know, could be used by someone who has limited, upper body movement, right? And maybe cannot reach the machine. And so they can, like, turn the wheel on this device and they can put this device in their lap. And it’s basically maneuvering around the ballot and making your selections and all that. And so, you know, we want we want election workers to, to know and voters to know that, like, it’s not just, you know, people who are vision impaired, who need these accessible tactile devices. Right, or audio tactile devices. It’s people with all kinds of impairments that could benefit if you have vision, but you can’t you don’t have the use of your upper body. Then that’s that’s a great device to use. And then also like as far as, you know, getting to the polling location, you know, be connected with your local centers for independent living. And they, usually have like resources available locally that will tell you, like, okay, these are sometimes like Uber and Lyft will have, we’ll have codes that they give out to voters that, you know, they can take them to, their local polling location. Another thing is, like in most counties already do this in Texas, but there are a few that don’t, I think still, have county wide voting. Right. And so if you think that you’re limited to voting, you know, the nearest precinct location to you, that’s not the case. You could go where you go grocery shopping or where you work or where you go to exercise. So I think that’s countywide voting is not something you traditionally think of as being an accessibility issue, but it’s huge. It makes a huge difference for people who already are limited in their transportation access.


Brisbin: And obviously not every county in Texas has that option. It’s probably more available in big cities and smaller communities, and to the small communities in rural areas and small towns. Are they going to typically use the same voting equipment that we see in, say, Harris County and Travis County? And or are they going to have different methods?


Nisankarao: They should be using it, and in a couple of years they will have to be using, you know, the, the to basically like to method, of, of, ballot, ballots, right where you have an electronic record and then you have, a print out record. So it’s very likely that soon enough, within the next few years, you will see these counties transition to, having a paper record as well as the electronic record, which means because they’re these two, large voting equipment manufacturers, it’s most likely they’re going to use one of those two. So.


Brisbin: That great, great information. Thank you so much, Sashi, for giving us so much, useful, practical information about voting. And and it’s coming right up. As you probably know, Texas primaries are in early March. The general election is in November. So, thank you for that, Sashi. And now let’s turn. Yes. Round of applause. Absolutely. Now let’s turn to education. Education was a big part of the 23 sessions I have to see is around sessions of the Texas Legislature. You may not know, and special education programs in big cities in Austin like Austin and Houston are, shall we say, troubled. Amy, what would you say is the net impact of 2020, these legislative sessions on special education and education for kids with disabilities in general?


Litzinger: Thank you for and asking the question. We serve children across Texas who have disability, mental health or special health care needs. So we’re very glad that you’re asking this question. I believe students with disabilities had a few wins, but the two houses differed in their goals and opinions. So we had a lot of good bills that were left on the table, but we had a couple of nice wins. First of all, historically, Texas has served students with dyslexia through section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, rather than through special education or the individuals with Disabilities Education Act. So if you were born with two disabilities, say, dyslexia and autism, for example, you had to pick one of those to address because you couldn’t receive 500 and an Ada concurrently. So a bill was passed to serve more needs by moving dyslexia into Ida. And then you could address everything. It also calls for dyslexia testing when you are sent to a disciplinary alternative education placement. And that bill was HB 3928 if you need the reference. The second thing that was really cool that happened is that school multi hazard operations plans will be developed to include the safety and security risk of students with disabilities and to we’ll help develop them with two key stakeholder groups who will represent students with disabilities. And that was part of. A small part of HB three. Also, it provides an opportunity, for the plan to increase participation of students with disabilities as part of real time drills. It requires TDA to monitor these plans and requires each campus to hire one armed security office officer for regular school hours, and specifies that they may not perform law enforcement duties unless there is a threat of serious injury or death. So.


Brisbin: We did not see a an essay or voucher program passed. That is obviously something the governor very much wanted and received a lot of opposition and a lot of support in the legislature. But I don’t think something we talked about a lot. We collectively I’m Texas standard probably specifically, but I don’t think in general, we heard much about how a voucher or essay system would affect kids with disabilities, who would, in that case, theoretically have the option to attend a school of their parents choice, as well as the public schools they, they now attend. Amy, what are your thoughts on how an essay or a voucher system could impact kids with disabilities in special education?


Litzinger: As you may know, students with disabilities have federal rights and protections under Ida when they’re in public schools. But zero rights and protections and in private school. A private school might hire a speech therapist for younger children, for example, but anything beyond that isn’t provided. Or it comes with a series of charge. Also, a private school can pick who they accept, making it less likely that they’ll pick someone for, for example, who needs an elevator, ramps, transportation, a paraprofessional, a special educator, or of course, modifications specific to me. I use a wheelchair and I can’t write with my hands yet with supports. I passed eight apps with flying colors and began college as a sophomore. If vouchers would pass, not only would students with special needs likely not be welcomed in private schools, but my high school, which offered a dozen AP courses, would be financially weakened and might have to stop providing gifted AP and IB courses. Also, during testimony, we heard about states who already have vouchers that had priority ties for low income and or students with disabilities. Yet in the end, it was students already attending. These schools who received the vouchers, not the intended population.


Brisbin: Did you have a chance to, contribute to the testimony or did your organization or did it any organizations that were addressing the needs of folks with disabilities have the chance to participate in the debates? Yes.


Litzinger: I did, contribute testimony with my story and the stories of, some of our families through Texas, parent to parent as well.


Brisbin: So you talked earlier about some bills in the legislature that passed and some that didn’t. And I guess I’m wondering and I know it’s not a legislative session year, but obviously politics never stops. So I’m wondering, what education issues are top of your list in 2024 and beyond?


Litzinger: I do have a list.


Brisbin: And we have how many minutes?


Litzinger: Right. Of course. It’s heartbreaking to have to wait two more years to try again. But, Texas parent parents would like to see the following bills, which made a lot of sense to us. Firstly, the individualized plans developed with schools and families as part of the IEP, which was originally filed by Doctor Mary Gonzalez. Two abolishment of restraints that occur on the floor at school, which can be dangerous to your airway and relying on better training, has not been the answer in past years. So we need to do something about it. Three is very important to me. The ability for 18 year olds to represent themselves in an IEP or due process hearing if they’re under a supported decision making agreement rather than under guardianship. To avoid due process, a school threatened to become a student’s guardian, and the student wanted to attend a college that wouldn’t admit students under guardianship. And, we need to make a pathway that allows for both due process and attending college someday. Lastly, there was a bill that would have licensed child care settings, with specific training and disability, which would create more inclusivity, thus allowing the child with disability and their typical peers to develop more socially.


Brisbin: Let me ask you one more thing. In the special education programs in Austin and the education system in Houston have famously been troubled, as I said, at the top of the show. And I’m wondering, I know the situations are different in each of those communities and in other communities in Texas. But what are some top things you’d like to see happen to sort of get the special education house in order on the local level for kids?


Litzinger: An issue is the backlog in identifying disabilities in students, which is known federally as child, child find because there are so few licensed specialist in school psychologists in Texas schools. Kids with autism often gain a physician’s diagnosis earlier than the school’s diagnosis by maybe a year or two. So a bill failed that would allow clinical psychologists to become school, psychologists and thus diagnose disabilities in schools. We would like to revive that LSP bill to, make it a little clearer. Clinical psychologist is a doctoral level degree, and LSP only requires a master’s degree. This would allow doctors of psychology to diagnose disability in school alongside their LSP colleagues. And last session, the bill was HB 4156.


Brisbin: But obviously new number and perhaps new sponsors. Next time around. Have some hope that folks are interested in that particular bill in the legislature.


Litzinger: Yes.


Brisbin: Great. Amy, thank you so much for all of that very well prepared material. So. Oh, well, here we go. Okay. Scrolling is fun sometimes. So. So much of the news and transportation is focused on tech like self-driving cars and ride hailing services. Those options can sound pretty exciting to a person who isn’t able to drive because they have a disability or some other reason. And, they’re there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic, but there’s also concern about how those new ways of getting around will impact transportation options we already have. Especially for folks with disabilities like mass transit and paratransit. And Nancy, I want to ask you about paratransit. Specifically, Capital Metro has a program called Metro Access, which Nancy knows very well. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on the state of paratransit, specifically in Austin, in central Texas right now. How are we? How are we doing?


Crowther: Let me just say that. Paratransit. Was brought to life because the community of people with disabilities needed transportation. And in 1976, they sued the city of Boston in order to have transportation. 1976. Yeah, I feel a little old, but, we’ve gone from five vehicles up to over a hundred. They’ve they’ve modernize their scheduling. They’ve modernized a lot of things so that integration could go across the lines from paratransit to the regular bus system. They have free training. They have everything they need. The regulations that we follow through the Americans with Disabilities Act, their eligibility standards for paratransit are a whole lot harder than they used to be. Basically. It’s a functional issue. Not a medical issue. And if you cannot, because of your disability, use the regular bus service. You’d probably be qualified for paratransit, but you gotta live in the riding area because the, bus service under the Ada has an outline of a service area for paratransit. Now it gets very, very complicated. But put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s on paratransit. They’ve got to go to the doctor or the grocery store or the yellow Rose or whatever. No judgment. But the the thing is, you got to make a reservation. With the person online. You can either be picked up a half an hour before the time you ask, or a half an hour after the time you requested, which. It’s kind of difficult unless you have a lot of time on your hands. You have to go. Just you kind of go straight to your destination, so there’s not a lot of opportunity. To know what’s going on. You know, seeing where some stores are seeing, you know, activities that are going on in the city and then the return trip. That has its issues because they might show up a half an hour early or a half an hour late. So that’s one hour. You get to sit on pins and needles and hope to God they come and pick you up, especially after the bar closes.


Brisbin: Nancy’s taking us out to the bar later. Yeah. But what I’m hearing you say, Nancy, is that not a lot has changed, because that’s kind of the outline of paratransit that 15 years ago, when I worked with, that back in my earliest days, I was actually the chair of the Metro Access Committee and worked, with Nancy, was our staff person, answered all our dumb questions. And it doesn’t sound like an awful lot has changed for paratransit riders in the last 15 years.


Crowther: In all actuality, a lot has changed. The eligibility. They have a, station for eligibility now where they have, an actual half a bus in the building, and people can show us how they can board the bus, whether it be in a wheelchair or whatever, you know, cane. They can show the, occupational therapists, by the way, that are hired. And this is an unthought of within transit because, you know, we’re not a medical. We’re rubber on the road. But Capital Metro has gone beyond the call of duty to ensure that people who are eligible for paratransit are truly eligible. And so, even though it sounds like not a whole lot has happened. And the wheels do turn slowly in transit. But I will say that the progress and the, tightening up of eligibility has helped more people get what they want instead of, you know, on call and, useless, or whatever you want to call it. The, the direction is always to try to teach them how to use fixture out cause it’s more of a spontaneous service. And frankly, it’s a little bit cheaper for people with disabilities.


Brisbin: Sure. Let me ask you about something I know you’ve been working on most recently, and that’s that’s dear to your heart. Project Connect and Austinites have heard of Project Connect and probably know some of the outlines of what it’s about, but I’m really would love to hear about your work on Project Connect. Can you give us a quick overview of what it is and then what, involvement you have had in terms of, disability and accessibility?


Crowther: Well, Project Connect by any other name, and there have been plenty of names for it. But the the current one is Project Connect. It’s an overall transportation system that needs to be improved in Austin. And, Project Connect will bring in light rail, but it also improve other services along the way. We’re connecting people through different means of transportation to get where they need to go. Now, if you’re sitting on 35, you probably know what I’m talking about, right? You see it, but in rail you can get thousands of people on it, and they can get across town in a matter of minutes. So we have a lot of, naysayers about rail. I think it’s kind of cowardly, because they don’t want to see it happen. And I’ve been involved with so many different start ups here in Austin that this is a real Longhorn. People need to use their voice and get involved with Project Connect. You can be on an advisory committee. You can go out to their. Showcases he can do, you know, be involved, have a voice, especially anybody from another town that experience real and see how it interconnects with all the other public transit. So it’s another option. I think it’s exciting. No, we’re not going to do a tunnel. I just wanted to dispel a few little myths. And in actuality, Shelly, I can’t begin to tell you how much your work on the advisory committee has led up to where we are. Where we’re outreaching to the community more than just what we were doing. They have so many activities for people to get involved. And if you’re tired of sitting on line 35 and paying tolls and, you know, all those exciting things that are happening on our roads, then ignore it. But it ain’t going to go away.


Brisbin: Well, thank you so much, Nancy, for for that. So give it give all our panelists a big round of applause, please. So now we have some time for questions from you out there. And the way this is going to work is that Laura Rice, who you met at the top of the show, is going to rove around with a microphone. And if you have a comment or question, preferably a question, please, because I think it would be great if our panelists could respond to your questions, but Laura will come to you, just flag her down and, then ask your question and, our, our panelists will take it.


Crowd Member: Thank you. I have a question about a huge controversy going.

Brisbin: Oh, and I’m sorry. Could could I ask you folks when we when you have a question. Could you tell us your name or a little something about yourself? Not too much, but just your name and maybe affiliation if you have one. And then go ahead with your question.


Linda Litzinger: My name is Linda Litz. And your I’m affiliated with Texas Parent to parent and a whole bunch of other places. I have a question about Shah’s billing. Which is taking $300 million away from schools. And it was suddenly announced. And it’s the big topic at the Capitol.

Brisbin: Yeah. And that was a question that I was going to ask Amy. And we kind of ran out of time. So, Amy, I’d love to hear your perspective on that and maybe explain to people a little bit about what’s happening, because it has to do with a conflict between state coding and how the federal government, it’s kind of bureaucratic, but it’s important because it could cost special education $300 billion. Is that right?


Amy Litzinger: Yeah. Thanks for being my plant, mom. The Texas school children comprise 7% of school children in the nation, yet our charge billing has grown to be 40% of the national bill. All the states bill for national supports for medically supports. But Texas also bills for educational supports. So Texas was told to reduce their percent of the pie. They may only bill for medical support, which as you can see, is a huge blow for our school budgets. One thing about this they consider certain families is that many catastrophically expensive children have private insurance in addition to state Medicaid. Private pays first and then Medicaid covers what private denies, such as round the clock nursing, which keeps kids at home instead of in state institutions. So until now, the private insurer sure could, without deliberation, turn down charges that happened in the school, for example, the annual salary of a paraprofessional or the purchase of school medical equipment. Our families are waiting to see what a school may now charge to private insurance, because parents are trying to avoid their child reaching the lifetime cap on their private insurance to early.


Brisbin: More questions.


RJ Díaz: Hi everyone. My name is RJ Diaz. To describe a little bit about me, I was born with a disability cultural palsy, which means I, walk with a walker and also use paratransit as my main mode of transportation. And I did want to say a comment. I’m on the access advisory committee. I have been, I want to say, since 2019, and I helped with. Advocating for later hours, to expand metro access night out. So yeah, that was really important to me in my work because I’m a music journalist, so I was always out late at night. But I did want to say, that they just rolled out a new app, and that has helped tremendously. And we’re able to, book an appointment. Time to be home. So that’s really help. Like, let’s say I want to be home by, I don’t know, 3:30 p.m.. So maybe they’d pick me up at like 230, but I know that I’d be guaranteed to be home by 330 more or less. So that just happened maybe about two months ago. And, they still haven’t ruled it out to the public. I’m on the, testing side of it, but that has really helped a lot. And I just wanted to let people know that that the app has really helped. And, you know, things have really improved. My experience for sure.


Brisbin: Thank you for sharing that I appreciate it.


Crowther: Yeah. In, in the area of technology, number one, all of our busses have ramps on them and they lower. That was unknown until I got to go play with them. So we were the first transit authority in the state of Texas as early as 93 to be fully accessible. I glad to hear that they’re using an app for paratransit, because it just it does. So my heart swells when I hear that whatever is happening and fix drought, it’s also happening in paratransit because the two go hand-in-hand. And. That’s really exciting. I love the, the fix right up. I always know to the second when that bus is going to show up.


Brisbin: We have another one?


Dennis Burrell: Yeah. Dennis burrell. So, Sasha, you mentioned Bexar County made Mail-In ballots accessible to people with disabilities. They did that as a result of a lawsuit? Yes. Okay, but there was legislation passed in the session passed by both the House and the Senate, sponsored in both chambers by very conservative Republican legislators. When it made it to the governor’s desk, he vetoed it. I never really understood why. Can you explain? Why the governor vetoed that legislation.


Nisankarao: Well, you and me both. I don’t. I can’t explain it either. I don’t know. I think maybe if I had to take a guess and be politically correct, it had to do something with, the bill. You’re referring to 3159, right? Yeah. So that bill, maybe it wasn’t limited enough in the scope of the kinds of disabilities, to which that voting method would be applicable. Right. So in the Bexar County case, it’s limited to people like I mentioned with, you know, like a very specific visual acuity. And that similar language was in in 31, 59. Not that it had to be. I would just think that that’s maybe the reason why, but it’s. If you’re other counties throughout Texas, I know you’re kind of thinking about, okay, well, we already the thing with Bexar County is they already had a system, an electronic, receipt of their ballot system in place for military and overseas voters. So other counties who have similar systems in place for military and overseas voters should really be looking at Bexar County and thinking like, okay, well, we have this system in place already. Can we not just expand it to a select group of people with disabilities and then see how it works, like a pilot program and then, and then, you know, expand it further as needed. So I, I don’t know why it was vetoed. I sure would like to know, but. I think that’s the goal, you know. Yeah. And I think he did. There’s a statement, on the veto, but, I don’t know, but.


Laura Rice: I see another question, Shelly. I also see KUT’s Becky Fogel here. So if people have, AISD specific questions, we can bother her.


Brisbin: Absolutely. Becky covers all things education, and not only in AiSd, but I have never learned so much about Pflugerville schools than I have since Becky Fogel has joined the text of the county news team. So thank you for that.


Bob cat Gambit: Bob cat Gambit, reverb Texas and Adaptive Texas. So I see, in addition to what, an attending can do. Wasn’t there also part of the lawsuit, about the penalty? Actually attendance being threat of being in jail. Was it one time a class A misdemeanor and I mean, a felony, and then they lowered it, but isn’t that also it? And do you know what the status is of that part of the legislation?


Nisankarao: I think I think that’s also in kind of the, limbo while these appeals are pending right now. So, but, what Bob is referring to is, yeah, a criminal and actual criminal penalty for people who, are assisting voters, that maybe fall outside of the bounds of what SB one had deemed, was assisting a voter. But it’s the thing is, like it it kind of if you if you were if you’re assisting a voter and you do something, you did something that was outside of directing of, somebody to mark the ballot or marking it for them. Then you could be potentially prosecuted for that. But since since the very definition of what assisting a voter is, was, basically, that limitation was taken away. And now there’s so many other ways that you can assist a voter. It’s going to be really hard for somebody to be prosecuted for assisting a voter, in a, in a reasonable manner. Right. Like maybe you, are helping them with, like, some technical issue that they have while they’re using the, the tactile machine or something like that. So I think, I think, think like the, the, the definition of, of the how you are assisting a voter was expanded because it was if it was capped at that very limited definition, a lot of people who potentially were assisting voters could be prosecuted for doing things that under the Ada, under title two are are perfectly reasonable. So.


Carson: Thank you. My name is Carson. I am a special education teacher in the area. Worked in AISD also now outside of Austin, a little bit. My question is for you, Amy, regarding this, new having a law enforcement officer on every campus. I, of course, understand the sentiment where it came from. But is there any concern, especially from the community or even any sort of advocacy groups, regarding having a law enforcement officer and how that may affect the our students with disabilities? I only ask since we know disproportionately disabled students and students of color, are disproportionately affected by practices such as restraint that can be deemed as, any sort of harm to themselves or others. So is there anything, any clarification that’s going to happen for the law enforcement officers to make sure this doesn’t happen?


Amy Litzinger: I’m so glad you asked that question. There are pieces in the legislation that requires them to have access to, any plans that are in place to, help students. They’ll have access to. What access needs this these children may have or behavioral plans that these children may have, and they are required to meet everybody before any disciplinary action is taken. So that hopefully, by having someone permanently on campus who knows the children, there’s less likely of there being issues when there is something that comes up because everybody’s aware of, this student’s disability and the, the support that needs to be given to them so that they are successful in a situation.


Rice: We have time for a couple more questions. I think this next voice will sound familiar. Shelly.


Sean Saldaña: Hey, Shelly, this is Sean.


Brisbin: I know that guy.


Sean Saldaña: So the intersection of disability and public transit is of interest to me, but I was just in New York City, which has a much more, like, robust public transit system in all respects, from like busses to subways to, like ferries and all that stuff. That said, it did not seem particularly navigable to me. There’s still lots of stairs to go up and down. You still got to dodge people. People you know, going crazy on the subway cars, etc.. I guess I’m wondering what good, you know, public transit looks like or what? I don’t know what transportation options look like. In terms of what cities can do. I don’t know.


Crowther: We have been included in the design phases of our rail system. We’re trying to avoid stairs. We’re trying to avoid elevators. You know, the kind that break down. I think they buy them that way. But, you know, it it’s it’s something that they’re open to. They want people involved. They want the experience people can bring to the table to say, no, this isn’t going to work. And let me tell you why. And they are listening. The biggest, project that we helped with was at, Pleasant Valley and Riverside. If that isn’t a nightmare, I don’t know what it is, but it was a lot of discussion related to, sloping the the grade, the angles, the lights. Can you run across, you know, Riverside fast enough to get your groceries? It was just a very intense discussion, but we were all there to talk about it and to show because a lot of people live in that area. A lot of people have used that area, and it’s bad. Now wait till we get rail in there and more bus service. So it’s a matter of scale, right? Because. I mean, Austin Transit System has to grow with the city, and it sounds like making it robust enough to handle a large amount of traffic. And by that I mean human traffic, not cars, is part of the challenge. It’s not just, you know, built putting a station down and hoping that it serves the of folks that you have. And thanks.

Brisbin: That was Sean Saldaña’s question from a fellow member of the Texas Standard team. Good to see you representing, Laura, do we have any more out there?


Cecil: Hi, my name is Cecil. I’m, volunteering today with KUT. I’m also, experienced disability and, advocate and proponent of public transport. I use public transportation primarily. Part of the reason I moved to Austin was to, not be tied to a car. My question is regarding, options for, independent electric transportation for people with disabilities. Something outside the bicycles, in the scooters that are ubiquitous, something that, could be, potentially available on, the city, subsidy or something. Just an idea.


Crowther: Yes. I’m glad you mentioned that. We have a whole new slew of, transportation options for people that really want to get scared. There are bicycles that have motors. There are scooters that will run you over. And they usually are parked in curb ramps or across sidewalks. That’s so handy. But I did want to say Uber. Which is one of our, hailing, companies, Transportation Network company. They, have contracted with medical transportation to provide Uber service in accessible vehicles. Thank you. So you can call Uber. It’s in the app. You confirm you have a disability, a wheelchair that needs a ramp. Otherwise, you can use a regular, Uber. So that came from a lawsuit, from adaptive access and folks with disabilities to bring accessibility into the role of these services, train network companies. For the most part, there’s no access. If you have a wheelchair or you need to use, a ramp. And Lyft has none. We’ve tried. But not until they purchase new vehicles will they have to purchase accessible ones, but they don’t have. Okay. At least Huber has given in honor at least lawsuit. To providing this service in a way that’s safe. The other thing is, anonymous cards is what I call it. Because really, there’s no driver. You know, it’s it’s kind of a scary thing for me, but, I always do this eye contact to it when I’m on the street. I wear bright colors, you know? So if if they’re going to hit me, they’re going to have to see me. Vision zero is another group I’m involved in to try to prevent. Pedestrian accidents, but, autonomous cars are not going to be used right now in Austin. I know one one company has pulled out crews, which I got involved in, cruise thing. It was I don’t know if they were practicing or something, but it was like just a bunch of cars trying not to hit each other. But I will tell you, we’re talking to Waymo, which is another, transit company that’s trying to do autonomous vehicles. But they realized after talking to, the folks with the Dapt and anybody else that’s been working with them, that a person is going to have to be in the accessible units, to help with tie downs and security and seat belts and muzzles, whatever. And they it but it’s so nice to have these options, you know, on a good day. It’s a sidewalk. On a rainy day. It’s home. But, for the most part, a lot of the sidewalk connectivity has really helped us to get to public transit. So I really you didn’t hear this from me, but I would stay away from the anonymous speaker.

Thanks for that, Nancy. And we’re going to have one last question. But first, I’ll give you a little peek behind the scenes. So I wanted all of our panelists to know what was coming. So I sent them a list of topics and questions I was going to have. And I and I ask too many questions because that’s what I always do. And Laura will tell you that when I write a script for the radio, I always ask too many questions, more than I have room for in the segment that we’re filming, because that’s what we’re filming. We don’t do that. We’re radio, the segment that we’re doing. In any case, I send all the topics around to my panelists, and in the course of tonight, we didn’t have time to get to every question I had written. But because of your great questions, we’ve now hit all of my topics.


Sonya Burns: Hi, I’m Sonya Burns. I’m an advocate. I have a twin brother who’s been living at the Austin State Hospital for over 15 years in this admission and cycled through homelessness and hospitalizations and incarceration in inappropriate settings for many more years than that. Before he got into this final admission. But I wanted to just bring attention to a few things and maybe just suggest some more advocacy. So we do not have appropriate response for persons with IDD who have psychiatric needs. And so most of our mental health facilities have exclusionary criteria for I.D, autism and or nonverbal. And because we don’t have enough state hospital beds. Which is our public mental health system, not meant to be the back end of a carceral system. So I should not have to sit in a cage in a jail waiting for competency restoration, because I couldn’t access the public mental health system at the right time, at the right place. But the crisis here is we have so many people now with I.D. waiting in jails that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards was required by the legislature to create an ID advisory committee on the detention of persons with ID every session, because we don’t have enough beds in our public mental health system we dump a lot of money into HHC to contract with community hospital beds. But most of those beds have exclusionary criteria for IDD, autism, and or nonverbal. And in a meeting that I was in a week ago. The higher ups of HHC had to admit that now, just like our state hospital system where most people come from jail are state supported, living center have the same thing. Number one population going in from jail. Number two, HCS programs, they were not able to answer how many got diversion slots. So in case anyone here doesn’t know if I go to jail or if I’m in a nursing home I will be moved to number one on the list for everybody who’s waiting 20 years for that waiver. I’m number one, and we’re not tracking the outcomes. Was that the appropriate setting? And if the diversion slots are showing that I’m ending up in jail and just cycling, this is not appropriate. But and then number three state hospitals. And am I a person with IBD in a state hospital where I only got there because I was in jail first? They couldn’t answer that either. So I’m just want to bring this to light because this is a huge crisis and we need a full continuum of services to meet the person’s needs, where they are, and to allow for true choice. But the fact that the majority of the people are going to end up in jails. Now, I don’t even know what to tell all these families. I got three new cases in the last few days. They’re all horrible, two in jail and one in a hospital, and four point restraints and chemical restraints. And two of those were from the providers, one from the family. Everybody’s desperate. So I would encourage to go to HHC and to the legislators and ask, are we funding something that is excluding an entire population of people who have real needs, the same needs as everybody else, and they cannot access the care they need, so we are forcing them into the jails.


Brisbin: Thank you so much for that. Well, I think what I took from that is that and I, we said at the beginning of the program that we are only scratching the surface when it comes to coverage of issues that affect folks with disabilities, because we had limited time here tonight. And we have, you know, only so many opportunities when we do our radio program. But it reminds us how many other conversations need to happen and how much is happening that we don’t necessarily know about with folks who have disabilities in this case, who are in the mental health system or in the in jail system. And so I really appreciate that perspective. I want to say thank you to everybody for coming tonight. You guys have been a very great, enthusiastic audience and it was terrific to have you. I want to say more thank you to I want to thank our my great panelists, Nancy Crowther, Sashi, and, Amy Singer. And the reason I don’t have sources pronunciation in front of me. I don’t want to screw it up, actually. So I apologized profusely. And I want to thank the wonderful folks from KUT that made this possible by getting this venue for us and making the time, giving us the opportunity to be part of the community. KUT Considers series. I want to thank Laura Rice from the Texas Standard, who is kind of spearheading not only our disability coverage, but also making this event possible. I want to thank my wonderful Texas Standard team for coming out for producing great disability related stories, not only for the special, but throughout the year. I want to thank the Long Center for having us and for Saint and the Saint Mary’s University, who is a sponsor of KUT Considers. And most of all, thank you again to all of you for coming tonight. Have a wonderful evening. Give a round of applause to this great day.


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