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Forum on disabilities opens eyes for many legislative candidates

June 17, 2014 10:12 pm  • 

Legislators and candidates vying for different House and Senate positions in the Montana Legislature joined together to learn about different challenges faced by the disabled community Tuesday night.

The forum on disabilities at City College in Billings helped to shed light on issues that many families with disabled children or family members face.

The event, put on by the ARC of Montana, Disability Rights Montana and Parents Let’s Unite for Kids (PLUK) hosted 14 candidates campaigning for House and Senate seats, a few of whom are running for re-election.

The candidates fielded questions from members of the audience and listened to personal testimony of community members who disability rights directly affect.

Karen Graf, who has a disabled son, Ty, said there needs to be more programs dealing with transitioning disabled kids into the work world after high school.

“Kids with disabilities used to have the option to graduate between 18 and 21 so they could be more prepared to transition into work after high school,” Graf said. “But now legislation has been passed so once they turn 18, they have to graduate and there is no more help for work counseling or further education.”

Other parents were concerned about what will happen to their disabled children after they graduate and what services will be available for them.

Amber Duncan, who has a disabled daughter, said her family wondered if they would able to make it financially even with insurance.

Her daughter was able to receive Medicaid to help pay for certain things like walkers, wheelchairs and medication, but she said it is still expensive.

Duncan asked the candidates whether the Affordable Care Act would impact her life and make it easier to afford care for her daughter.

“It’s ridiculously expensive and we are just a normal family,” Duncan said. “We are not alone in this story.”

Tonya Shellnutt, a Republican Senate candidate for District 24, said her children, too, have disabilities.

“Our responsibilities as legislators are to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves,” Shellnutt said. “Sometimes as a parent you are hitting your head up against the wall because you don’t know what to do.”

Many of the candidates were unaware of the problems and issues faced by the disabled members of the community.

Mary McNally, a Democratic incumbent running for re-election for Senate District 24, said the forum was the first time she had heard of many of the issues.

“This is my third race, but this is the first time I am aware of a forum like this presenting these issues,” McNally said. “Make sure your legislators know about these issues.”

Other issues brought up by members attending the meeting were transportation for the disabled and long waiting lists for people wanting to get benefits from both the state and federal government.

One man said he was told to quit his job in order for his disabled daughter to receive benefits from the state.

All of the candidates said they were open to hearing the stories and suggestions to help change current laws pertaining to disabled people.

Chris Goodridge, a Democratic candidate for House District 52, said he wants his money to help those who need it.

“When I pay taxes, I expect it to take care of others who are less fortunate than I am,” Goodridge said.

The forum opened the eyes of many candidates who were in the dark on the issues in the past.

“People need to hear these stories,” Shellnutt said. “They need to hear the human element.”

Before the event, Graf said she hoped the candidates would be able to learn about the everyday life of people with disabilities.

“A lot of people think that parents with kids who have disabilities live in the ‘Special Olympics’ world,” Graf said. “That’s nice, but it’s only a couple of weeks out of the year. They have no idea what life is like every day.”