Sunday, July 28, 2013

Accessibility and the Texas Legislature, Part 4

Previously: Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

**NOTE: "disabled person/people" and "people with disabilities/PWD" will be used throughout this post.**

When last I left you, I had just gotten off the ridiculous elevators on the third floor of the Capitol.  I was unsure where the line for the Senate gallery was because there just SO MANY PEOPLE.

Luckily, I saw my friend Jessica and she pointed me in the right direction.  Additionally, she found someone (a Capitol employee? a volunteer?) who could help me in the way of disabled access. So this person escorted me up to the front of the line and then I went through the dreaded DPS search.

Let me be clear right up front.  I am a grad student.  I was using my backpack that day because I wanted to bring my computer, my heating pad, etc.  There was basically pens, papers, post-it notes, etc thrown all in my backpack and/or crushed underneath stuff, etc.  My backpack is a mess because I use it for a lot of different things.

Something else that also needs to be said: I was getting over what can only be described as the plague from a few days before.  I had been sick for a week and was unable to keep ANYTHING down (including water, crackers, and soup).  I was still very gingerly eating - a cracker here, some toast there - and I was drinking tons of water to stay hydrated since I'd been throwing up for a week.

Ok, so things I was required to throw away or otherwise dispose of in order to get into the Senate gallery (please note: I didn't have any tampons or pads in my bag, so obviously they couldn't confiscate those):
  • Pour the water out of my reusable water bottle into the garbage
  • Throw away a still-sealed bottle of water that was being distributed by volunteers.
  • Throw away all food, including chips, saltine crackers, and portable applesauce that I either brought or got from volunteers.
  • Throw away a practically new box of Kleenex because it counts as "paper." (I have terrible allergies and have to have Kleenex everywhere I go...I brought a whole box because I knew it would be a long day)
  • Throw away all Post-it Notes (which I use to annotate the books I read for grad school)
  • Throw away all scraps of paper (thanks for helping me clean those out Mr. DPS Guy)
  • Throw away all packaging that pens and pencils come in because it counts as paper (seriously?!)
  • This wasn't me, but the teenager behind me had to throw out her HOMEWORK because she also brought her backpack and her homework was on paper.

So, by the time I got to the gallery, I had my computer, my heating pad, some cords, and some pens. No food, no water, no paper.

In order to get into the gallery, visitors are required to go up a few steps.  Thankfully, they had a sort of mini-elevator or lift in a separate room.  Unfortunately, since I was borrowing the Rollator, I didn't know how to collapse it or fold it down, so I couldn't sit in the "regular" seats without blocking aisles with the Rollator.  Anyway, I can't remember if it was a Senate page or a DPS officer who told me, but they said I could sit in one of the four (ONLY FOUR) areas designated for wheelchairs and just sit on the Rollator since I couldn't collapse it.  The other three designated areas were occupied by PWD.

Unfortunately (again), this meant I could not sit with my orange-shirted comrades in the gallery.  The areas surrounding the accessible seats were filled with blue-shirted people.  As I lamented on Twitter about my predicament, two orange-shirted people came over for a little bit and commiserated with me, for which I am EXTREMELY grateful!

I got into the gallery a little before 2pm. Due to the gallery not being quite filled, Dewhurst called for the Senate to be "at ease" until 2:30pm. By the time 3:15 or so rolled around, my back was already screaming.  I wanted to stay in the gallery, but my back had other ideas.  As I rolled my way out of the gallery, I seriously was crying (silently) that I was physically unable to stay in there after I had waited SO LONG.  I went back downstairs and into the auditorium.

Considering this series is already 4 parts long, I think I'm going to end it here.  The auditorium was quite comfortable and I didn't really encounter other issues (except for the staircase in Rep. Farrar's office) after that.  Thank you for listening to my story, and I hope I have shed some light on the issues disabled people face regarding accessibility.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Accessibility and the Texas Legislature, Part 3

Previously: Part 1 & Part 2.

**NOTE: "disabled person/people" and "people with disabilities/PWD" will be used throughout this post.**

When my friend Katherine agreed to pick me up and take me to the Capitol for the final day of the HB2 debate, I needed to find out what their accessibility was like.  Specifically, as someone who can't stand for extended periods of time, I wanted to know if they had wheelchairs available for patrons of the Capitol.

I went to the Capitol's website and looked at their accessibility information. Here's what it had to say about physical access:
To request this service, please call [Capitol Visitor's Services at] (512) 463-0063. The office provides wheelchairs and can conduct tours using sign language. If requests are made in advance, the office will try to make whatever accommodations are needed. The Senate Sergeant's Office handles special accommodations for senate hearing rooms, and the House Sergeant's Office handles special accommodations for house hearing rooms. Capitol Visitor Services will gladly forward requests to either office, as appropriate.)

I was a little concerned that the Capitol had no immediately obvious dedicated accessibility office other than the Visitor's Services.  But I called them anyway.  I was informed that two wheelchairs (only TWO?!)  were available on a first-come, first-served basis. I would have to leave my driver's license in order to take one of the chairs; I would also have to return it by 5pm in order to get my license back.  I asked her if she was aware of what had been going on in the Capitol regarding HB2 and pointed out that having to return the wheelchair at 5pm might not be sufficient if the proceedings went until all hours of the night.  She double-checked with her supervisor (she said) and came back to confirm that the information she had given me was accurate.  Obviously, this was disappointing news to me.

(Full disclaimer: I was so irritated by the information she gave me that I didn't even notice that it said to contact the Senate Sergeant's Office for accommodations in hearing rooms.  I'm not sure if that would apply to the senate gallery or not.)

I relayed the above phone call on Twitter, and many people contacted me about possibly renting a chair or maybe getting a bunch of chairs to the Capitol so that MANY disabled people could participate in the events.  However, both of those plans did not come to fruition.

As stated in Part 2, Pamela and her husband let me borrow their Rollator, which came with another set of accessibility issues.  So...we had just moved past the wooden benches where I had been sitting when I saw Pamela's husband with the Rollator.  It took a little maneuvering since I had my backpack, but it worked quite well as a seat/wheelchair.

The issues began when the gallery line started moving, and I went to find the elevator.  I admit, I had not looked at a map of the Capitol before heading up there that day.  I mean, I had been there several times in my younger days, and hard could it be to find an elevator, right?  RIGHT?!  Pretty damn hard as it turns out.

I went to the Rotunda and saw a sign for the elevator pointing towards the North entrance, but then I didn't see any elevators. The elevator signs seemed to be pointing towards the bathrooms, which were on opposite walls.  I don't know who designed this area, but essentially there is this little alcove where the elevators are.  Meaning, if the elevator doors are against the "regular" wall, there is an extra wall about five feet in front of the "regular" wall, which blocks the line of sight in actually seeing the elevator doors (god, I hope that made sense...I wish I had gotten a picture).  This extra alcove wall also made it damn near impossible to get the Rollator near the elevator until I actually had to get in it.

Let me digress for two seconds since I mentioned the bathrooms.  The women's bathroom had one accessible stall (expected), but overall it was TINY.  There was no room to really put the Rollator (especially since there was someone changing a baby in there), but the accessible stall wasn't big enough to take it in there with me.  So, add bathrooms to the list of accessible fails at the Capitol. End digression.

The elevators were incredibly slow, and there were quite a few people who wanted to use them.  From what I could tell (and as someone with fibro, I realize not all illnesses are visible), it seemed like the people who were using the elevators were mostly those who needed them.  The third floor (where the Senate gallery was located) also had the weird alcove wall thing, but I managed to get through there.

But apparently, my fun was just beginning...

Again, due to the length of these posts, I have decided to add a Part 4 to this series, which should include my experiences in getting into the Senate gallery.  Stay tuned!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Accessibility and the Texas Legislature, Part 2

Previously: Part 1 here.

**NOTE: "disabled person/people" and "people with disabilities/PWD" will be used throughout this post.**

Throughout the first and second special sessions of the Texas Legislature, I had spent 99% of my time at home/work doing what activism I could using a live stream and my laptop. The second reading of HB2 took place on Friday, July 12...since I didn't have to work that day, Katherine was kind enough to come pick me up and take me to the Capitol for our Feminist Justice League D-Day.

What I am about to describe is indicative of my particular experience at the Capitol. I look forward to hearing other disabled people's experiences during either or both special sessions.

For your convenience, you can find floor plans of the Texas Capitol Building and Grounds here.

To avoid the atrocious parking situation, Katherine and I took the bus to the Capitol.  Our particular bus stop was closest to the West entrance of the Capitol; however, the accessible entrance to the Capitol is on the North side.

And so my choices began early that day at the Capitol.  Do I navigate the two short flights of stairs up to the West entrance doors?  Or do I walk the extra 100 yards (if not more...I'm horrible with distances) to get to the accessible entrance with elevators?  Since I had a cane and not a chair or Rollator, I opted for the closer West entrance.  Considering it was not the designated accessible entrance, I was not surprised to find the doors were not automatic.

After passing through the metal detectors (I voluntarily offered to pass my cane through the x-ray machine for the DPS officers' peace of mind), Katherine and I saw that the line to get in the gallery for the 2pm hearing had already filled the street level.  The DPS officers at the metal detector instructed us to go downstairs to the Ground level where the end of the line was.

And so I had another choice. Do I walk down the really steep (and apparently slick) steps to get to the ground floor?  Or do I walk from the West entrance, through the crowded lines on the street level, over to the Rotunda, and up to the elevators to go down to the Ground floor?  Again, knowing what a long day I had ahead, I opted for the path of least walking and took the stairs...VERY SLOWLY, I might add.

We got to the end of the line around 9:30-10:00am Friday morning.  We had heard the gallery would probably not open until 1:00-1:30pm, so we had quite a wait ahead of us.  There were no chairs available on the Ground level (that I saw).  However, there were stairs.  (This set of stairs was wide enough to hold probably four people across at one time and had a railing down the middle.  The gallery line was going up the left side of the stairs next to the middle railing.)  

I decided that, since there were no chairs, I would sit on the stairs.  I sat on the left side of the railing, as far to the left as I could go so I could lean up against the outside railing for back support.  I hadn't been sitting there long, when some type of "official" looking person told me that I would have to move because I was blocking people coming down the staircase, even though the staircase on the right side of the railing was practically not being used.  Not wanting to cause problems that early in the day, however, I dutifully moved over and lost my back support for the time being.

We eventually made it from the Ground level back up to the Street level, where there were actually wooden benches.  Katherine agreed to hold my place in line while I sat down for awhile.  I was carrying my backpack (also used for grad school), and I always keep a small pillow in there in case I encounter uncomfortable chairs in class and whatnot.  So I was able to stay seated and somewhat comfortable for a little while, but could not be near my friends who were still in line.

Around 11:30am, we had just moved past the wooden benches where I was sitting when Pamela and her husband blessedly showed up with a Rollator they had agreed to let me borrow (if I wasn't an atheist, I would be thanking every god and saint for their incredible generosity!).

Since this post is already a bit long, I will add a Part 3 and discuss the accessibility issues I encountered with the Rollator and what I had to do to get into the gallery. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Accessibility and the Texas Legislature, Part 1

Update (7/19): Thanks to suddenlyspeaking on Twitter for this link from Burnt Orange Report with further information on filibustering.

**NOTE: "disabled person/people" and "people with disabilities/PWD" will be used throughout this post.**

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I have fibromyalgia. Although fibro affects different people in different ways, my fibro manifests as daily excruciating pain in my lower back which often migrates to my arms, legs, and hands (not so much the feet so far).  I started using a cane about a year ago, mainly to help me get around the campus where I'm going to grad school, which is literally on the fault line between the Hill Country and the Coastal Plains (meaning it is VERY hilly).

That being said, I tend to pay attention to accessibility issues, especially when it comes to state and federal government.

After the People's Filibuster on June 20, I learned that Wendy Davis planned to filibuster SB5, a restrictive abortion regulation requiring all abortion clinics to meet the standards of Ambulatory Surgery Centers (ASCs aka day surgery centers) among other atrocious stipulations.

And I began to wonder...what are the requirements for a Texas Senate filibuster? According to this article:
What made the scene so riveting was the woman who was required to speak without a break, without straying from the topic and without even leaning on her antique walnut desk. As time ran out, Republicans deemed her to have violated those rules — including once for being helped with a back brace — and made her give up the floor.

So, no food, no water, no bathroom breaks, no sitting, no leaning, no assistance from any colleagues whatsoever (as evidenced by her second "strike" regarding the back brace). And, as I was watching, the thought occurred to me:

What if Wendy Davis was disabled?


What if I, a disabled person, was a senator and wanted to filibuster?

Let's take a look at the Senate Rules for the 83rd Legislative session (PDF). Page numbers listed below indicate the page numbers of the PDF.

Page 3 of the rules states:
The Texas Senate is an Equal Opportunity Employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age or disability in employment or the provision of services. (emphasis added)

Seems promising so far.  Except that's the SOLE mention of disability in this context in the entire document (there are a few other mentions regarding disability retirement, etc).

Let's move on to filibustering. Rule 4.03 regarding filibustering can be found on pages 21-24 of the PDF.  As far as I can tell, there is no explanation of the physical requirements of the filibuster, save one phrase I happened to notice:
When a member has been recognized and is speaking on a bill or resolution, he must confine his remarks to the subject of the bill and speak audibly (62 S.J. Reg. 778 (1971)). (emphasis added)

Would this automatically disallow people who use sign language as their primary means of communication from filibustering? What about people with damaged voice boxes, etc?

I'm left wondering, why the stringent requirements for filibustering?  And where exactly can these requirements be found? (If anyone has this info, please let me know and I'll be happy to update the post.)

No one said filibustering would be easy, but filibustering should be a viable option for everyone.  After reading the list of things Senator Davis was NOT allowed to do, I went through this litany in my head:
  • No food/no water - during a filibuster, how would PWD take medication that may be prescribed for certain hourly intervals? Almost all meds encourage taking with water, and many advise taking with food.
  • No bathroom breaks - some people have disabilities that affect their kidney and/or bladder functions. Should they not be allowed to filibuster?
  • No sitting/no leaning - probably the most obvious question here would be, could PWD in wheelchairs or similar mobility devices filibuster? Would that count against the "no sitting" clause? What about people like me, who can only stand for about 15 minutes at a time?
  • No assistance from colleagues (e.g. back brace) - how many PWD need either basic or complex assistance in some form or another?

Clearly, it appears the filibuster rules need to be changed.  If the Texas Senate claims they do not discriminate on the basis of disability, they should follow through and make sure all processes and procedures are fully accessible for EVERYONE.

I plan to write all Texas Senators with suggestions for changes in the filibuster, and I would recommend that all Texans do the same!

I want to be clear that I do not speak for all disabled people.  I look forward to any feedback regarding other accessibility issues I may not have thought of.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will discuss some of the accessibility issues I encountered at the Texas Capitol Building.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Some new "testimony" for the TxLege to consider

After watching many hearings and floor debates, I have something to say.

Look at us. LOOK AT US. Put down your cell phones and iPads, stop talking to your buddies, come back to the panel and LOOK AT US.

You are terrible at your jobs. Sure, you moved through the hearing like a well-oiled machine, but which of you legislators paid attention to us? NONE. As legislators, it is your responsibility to represent your constituents, not your own interests.  In order to do that, you must LISTEN to those you represent. And yet, over the past few weeks, Facebook and text messages and Angry Birds have seemed more important to you.

If I behaved at MY job, the way you have behaved at YOURS, I would have been fired a long time ago. Unfortunately, we can only fire YOU every few years...funny how "right to work" doesn't apply to legislators, isn't it?

You are not a monarchy. We are not here at your pleasure. You work for the people of this state, NOT the other way around.

So show some goddamn respect and LOOK AT US.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Reproductive Rights (and Related) Events

PLEASE NOTE: I will NOT be updating this link past August 15.  The Feminist Justice League website is now active, and there are calendars for individual areas.  If your area is NOT in the FJL Local list, please consider contacting them to make one!! :)