Bipartisan Disability Caucus Forms After Pandemic Exposes Flaws In NJ's System Of Care

Legislators have promised to come together to focus on disability issues at the end of a rough year for New Jerseyans with disabilities.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney will chair a newly formed bipartisan Disability Caucus.

"This bipartisan caucus presents the opportunity to further improve health care, education, transportation, housing and employment for New Jersey citizens with disabilities. I look forward to working with my colleagues and the many advocacy groups across this state who are committed to helping people with disabilities live self-determined, fulfilling lives so we can move New Jersey forward for everyone,” Sweeney said in an email.

The formation of the caucus comes not a moment too soon, said advocates who spent the pandemic lobbying for essentials like hospital rights, protective gear and access to food.

“We need to be served as a population,” said Javier Robles, chair of the New Jersey Disabilities COVID-19 Action Committee, which published a report condemning the state for failing to protect its most vulnerable residents.

In March, companies that run group homes for people with developmental disabilities said their lobbying for protective gear fell on deaf ears. In August, health care professionals who serve the same population said their clients were isolated too long as they remained in quarantine even as everyone else was emerging from lockdowns. Six months from the start of the pandemic, thousands of residents were still waiting for permission to go back to their jobs, which in some cases were already being done by people without disabilities.

“The Caucus will establish a platform in which legislators and their staff can be educated on key issues and where they have a place to reach out to organizations and self-advocates who have lived these experiences as they are considering issues, said Mercedes Witowsky, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Her group had been pushing to establish a caucus for a year, Witowsky said, and if there were such a thing as a silver lining to the pandemic it was that it highlighted flaws in the systems set up to help residents with disabilities, who make up 24.6% of New Jersey’s population, according to the CDC. That lit a fire, and lawmakers announced the Caucus in a Dec. 1 live stream.

“This unfortunate pandemic and emergency has exposed many cracks in the systems of care to our disability community,” said caucus member Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat representing the 37th District.

Maybe that’s why more than a couple of dozen lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate chose to take part in the Caucus, said Witowsky.

It’s slated to meet four times next year, with the first meeting to focus on “COVID and the disability community” in late January. But Witowsky hopes the effects of the caucus will be greater.

“As they go back to their work, they include disability matters in their conversations, in drafting legislation. It’s also a way that our community self advocates, advocates and family can identify with leadership in the state," Witkowsky said.

"They will know that Senator [Thomas] Kean supports the caucus and is a founding member and when they have an issue they will go to Senator Kean’s office. The Senate and Assembly members who signed on signed on knowing that they were making a commitment to disability issues," he said.

Founding legislative Disability Caucus members are Sens. Sweeney, Anthony Bucco, Kristin Corrado, Patrick Diegnan Jr., Thomas H. Kean, Jr., Fred Madden Jr., M. Teresa Ruiz and Troy Singleton; Assembly members Daniel Benson, Annette Chaparro, Nicholas Chiaravalloti, Ronald S. Dancer, Joann Downey, Aura Dunn, Louis Greenwald, Eric Houghtaling, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Pamela Lampitt, Yvonne Lopez, Nancy Munoz, Carol Murphy, Holly Schepisi, Adam Taliaferro, Britnee N. Timberlake, Anthony Verrelli and Andrew Zwicker.

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