The state’s new permanent commission charged with advancing the cause of and improving the quality of life for the hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities in Massachusetts is preparing to file its first annual report and is already looking ahead to the work it wants to undertake in the next year.
The Commission on the Status of Persons With Disabilities is expected to review its first report to the governor and Legislature when it holds its fourth meeting Friday, ahead of the Oct. 31 statutory deadline. Chairwoman Rep. Denise Garlick said it is important to her that the commission meet its first deadline even if the report covers mostly the administrative tasks necessary in the first few months of the commission’s existence.
“As the chair of the commission, I am deeply committed to meeting the first deadline that we have for the October 31st report,” she said last week during the commission’s third meeting. “It is important to me that we are seen as a strong, robust, committed commission. And I think the way you do that is to meet the deadlines that are set out in the legislative language.”
A draft version of the report shows that while the commission’s early days have focused on getting up and running, the 23-person group has also devoted significant time to writing, revising and coming to agreement around a series of values statements that members hope will guide the commission’s work going forward.
“This discussion about the value statements, I’m hoping, is what’s going to ground us in our work,” Garlick said. “And in all the ways that we’ll be able to move and all the things we want to accomplish, we will be united because we have agreed on these value statements.”
The values statements the commission is working to finalize during Friday’s meeting include things like, “Disability is a natural part of the human experience that in no way diminishes one’s right to fully participate in all aspects of community life” and “Successful disability policy embraces the ‘nothing about us without us’ principle” and “People with disabilities have valuable and unique strengths and contributions yet they are underutilized in our workforce and frequently experience social and economic disadvantage.”
The starting point for the commission’s values statements was a report published in 2017 by the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As of 2018, there were 791,132 people with disabilities living in Massachusetts, equal to about 11.6 percent of the state’s 6.9 million population, the commission said. But as it begins its work in earnest, the commission’s draft report sets out a goal to “[u]nderstand the differences in concerns and issues between various types of disabilities of individuals” in the next year.
The draft report’s section on goals for the next year, Garlick said, is “a work in progress always.” The draft that the commission circulated ahead of Friday’s meeting also identified workforce needs and employment opportunities, access to transportation, benefits availability and cutoffs, and housing issues as topics the commission wants to dive into in the coming months.
“We are a permanent, funded commission. We are going to be able to develop short-term goals and long-term goals and having met each and every one of you, even in this virtual format, I am confident about our ability to do good work,” Garlick told commissioners last week.
The commission was created by a late 2020 law with a broad mandate to “advance the cause of persons with disabilities,” including the improvement of access to transportation, food, housing and work. The idea for the commission came out of the work of the “WorkAbility” subcommittee of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.
Rep. Josh Cutler chaired that subcommittee and successfully incorporated the language creating the commission into an unrelated policing reform bill agreed to at the end of last year.
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