Disabled find voice at City Hall through Mayor's Commission

India Smith, Special to the Reporter
May. 22, 2014

You use a wheelchair to move around and go shopping shop in your neighborhood business district. But, in summertime, outdoor cafes make the sidewalk too narrow for you to get by.

You live in South Boston, but your personal care attendant lives in Dorchester. Without a resident sticker on her car window, she can’t legally park on your street. After one too many tickets, she is about to quit.

Your 20-year old autistic son is being roughed up at school. You contact the Department of Children and Families, but since he is over 18, they can’t help you.

For anyone with a disability, or the parent of anyone with a disability, problems like these are daunting. For one individual to get the attention of a public agency – let alone get action – is almost impossible.

The Mayor’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities is charged with eliminating those obstacles. In its four years of existence, the commission has increased accessibility and inclusion throughout Boston.

On May 14, the panel held a forum at Boston City Hall to present its annual report and listen to the concerns of the disability community.

In a brief introduction, Felix Arroyo, the city’s chief of Health and Human Services, urged attendees to speak freely. “We want to make sure the city is accessible to everyone,” Arroyo said. “So if you think of an idea that could help, share it with us.”

According to commissioner Kristen McCosh, Mayor Walsh has instructed all city departments to coordinate their efforts. “Our staff is in contact with all the public agencies, so if you have a concern, you can call us,” said McCosh. Her staff has recently been increased from four to seven, including an outreach and advocacy specialist. The commission’s nine-member advisory board includes people with experience in all types of disability. Two new members, including Dorchester resident Tee Thach-Hasan, are parents of children with autism.

Among those who offered ideas was Dianne Lescinskas, director of inclusive services for the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester. Lescinskas spoke of the need for more after-school programs for students with disabilities. More programs would require transportation and coordination among agencies, things the commission might be able to facilitate, she said.

Lescinskas also sought the commission’s advice on abuse and bullying of special needs students. Communication with parents is fragmented, she said. Lescinskas has even met parents who did not know their disabled child was entitled to stay in school until age 22.
“We hope our new outreach and advocacy person will get involved in that,” said McCosh.

In the future McCosh intends to focus more on schools, especially the transitional students, aged 18 to 22. “We need to do more to give those students the skills they need for the next phase of their lives, whether it is college or the workplace,” she said.

The commission offers summer internships for high school students with disabilities, placing them in various city departments. The internships are funded by the Boston Center for Independent Living, the city’s Hope Line and the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The commission also offers summer internships for disabled adults, funded by Mass Rehab. The interns work in city departments for six weeks. Last year one intern was subsequently hired by the Boston Housing Authority and two were hired by Inspectional Services. “These were not minimum wage jobs, they were substantial jobs,” said McCosh, who added that she is committed to offering internships. “When I was in college, I had no idea if I would be able to work, if I could hold a job. I didn’t know if anyone would hire me,” said McCosh, who uses a wheelchair. “I know the value of internships personally.”

Other commission projects include a parking program for personal care attendants, a monthly TV program on Boston Neighborhood News, a rating system for wheelchair accessible taxis, and an accessibility audit of City Hall. The commission will soon be on Facebook and Twitter.

On July 24, Mayor Walsh and the commission will host a celebration of the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Boston City Hall Plaza from noon until 3 p.m. The free event will feature food, music, and fun for children, families, and individuals of all abilities.