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Wednesday, Sep 26 2012 11:00 PM

DARLA BENSON: Giving a real voice to disabled Californians facing budget cuts

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    Darla Benson

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The most vulnerable and frail among us have the weakest voices. They cannot speak up in their own defense. All want to be heard, but most are ignored. They depend on the rest of us to shout for help.

Nonprofit groups that provide services for children and adults with disabilities in Kern County have formed a coalition to increase the volume of voices used to shout for help and provide a platform to show support.

Voices of Integration: Communities Empowering the Disabled, or VOICED, will hold a free information and training event for families, friends and advocates from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at Hodel's Country Dining, 5917 Knudsen Drive. The goal is to use our unified voices to develop power and respect for the needs of people with disabilities.

Whether it's to close California's financial shortfall, or reduce the U.S. debt, the disabled and medically fragile have been placed in the cross hairs of state and federal budget-cutters.

There is more hand-wringing in this election season over cutting the budget, and raising or cutting taxes, than cutting life-saving services for the disabled and elderly. Why? Because these people don't have the political clout -- meaning they don't make contributions to politicians' campaigns -- that affluent special interests do. Dismissed by some as freeloaders, they just aren't as important to state and federal politicians. Ironically, each and every one of us is just a tragic car wreck or catastrophic disease away from joining the disabled and medically fragile some are so quick to dismiss.

According to the state Department of Rehabilitation, 4.5 million people in California live with a disability. In Kern County, 30 percent of our population -- our family, friends and neighbors -- struggle every day with disabilities.

Just consider the state budget cuts that could force the severely disabled and elderly out of independent residences and into nursing homes (an expensive option). Hours of care covered by In-Home Supportive Services (the low-cost option) already have been reduced. The administration is fighting in court to impose an additional 20 percent cut. On top of those reductions are Medi-Cal and education cuts that disproportionately affect those with disabilities.

We've all heard about the "fiscal cliff" the U.S. government is heading toward because Congress played a dangerous game of chicken last year over raising the federal debt ceiling. Instead of forging a compromise budget deal, Republicans and Democrats agreed to "sequestration."

It's a big word, with all sorts of political complications. But the bottom line is Congress must strike a budget deal by the Jan. 2 deadline. If politicians fail, all sorts of draconian budget cuts will automatically occur. We have heard a lot of "election talk" about cuts to military spending. We haven't heard much about deep cuts looming for services and care for the disabled and elderly, or the impending consequences.

Why? Because the disabled and elderly have weak, frail voices. They are easily forgotten and tossed aside. But people who depend on these services are discovering their basic rights and quality of life are in jeopardy. Many people are beginning to lose hope.

Despite their staggering numbers, people with disabilities, their families, and organizations and caregivers that provide services are often unaware, unequipped and unable to combat the policy changes and budget cuts that are jeopardizing human rights.

In advocating for people with disabilities and their families, VOICED will create a voice and a parade so large and so loud that politicians and bureaucratic budget-cutters cannot ignore the dire consequences of their actions.

Partners in the newly formed VOICED coalition include Bakersfield ARC, MARS Group, Maxim Health Care, Lighthouse B.E.S.T. Program, Independent Living Center of Kern County, New Advances for People with Disabilities, Barry Rosenfeld with Special Needs Planning, and Goodwill of South Central California. We intend to stand with our community and demand these people be cared for and heard.

For reservations or more information about Saturday's VOICED event, contact Erika Dixon, at 325-1063, ext. 33, or email edixon.voiced@gmail.com.

Darla D. Benson is executive director of New Advances for People with Disabilities, a Bakersfield nonprofit organization that assists children and adults with disabilities. She can be contacted through NAPD's website, www.napd-bak.org. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.

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