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Candidates Get Mixed Reaction from Disabled Residents and Advocates

See correction at end of story. Oct. 28, 2006 — Disabled residents attending the fourth annual Voices That Count Conference on St. Croix Friday got a chance to confront senators and senatorial aspirants about their issues and concerns during a panel discussion at the Carambola Beach Resort.
The conference focused on disability rights and public policy, and some of the most pointed criticism came from a lawyer who flew down from the nation's capital.
"You are dragging 30 years behind the rest [of the U.S.]," said Attorney Eva Britt, founder of a Washington, D.C., law firm that emphasizes protection of the civil, human and legal rights of people with disabilities. As the audience cheered her on, Britt told panel members they had to do better with federal-regulation compliance.
"Excuses about the narrow minds of the community are not acceptable," she said. "These laws have been in place since the late '70s, and we are still talking about discrimination from the private sectors."
The conference, in which the territory's disabled population is "given a voice" for issues, wrapped up Friday. Sponsored by the University of the Virgin Islands V.I. University Center for Excellence on Developmental Disabilities (VIUCEDD), it began with a two-day session on St. Thomas and ended with another two-day session on St. Croix.
The candidates fielded questions in five primary areas: education, transportation, employment, health (including mental health) and housing. Their answers drew a mixed reaction from the crowd. More than 150 disabled residents, caretakers and advocates filled the resort's conference room, sometimes whispering their disappointment with responses by the aspirants.
"I don't believe they did their homework," said Sylvia Brady, board member of Ten Thousand Helpers, an organization that addresses the needs of area homeless and disabled people. "They don't seem to be aware of the issues and concerns [of the disabled]."
Others in the audience wanted to give the aspirants the benefit of the doubt. "A few are answering the questions effectively," attendee James Johnson said, and he was not the only one impressed with some of the panel members. One disabled elderly resident, who asked not to be identified, praised some aspirants for their honesty: "I like the fact that they are being truthful on what they do and do not know."
Miriam Osbourne, VIUCEDD assistant director, was pleased with the outcome of the conference. "This forum will aid senators [and aspirants] to become more informed," she said, adding that disseminating information and having a chance to be heard was VIUCEDD's main goal.
More than 250 disabled residents, caretakers and advocates registered for the forum, and nearly 85 percent were in attendance on the final days, Osbourne reported. "I've met my objective," she said.
Panel members were allotted one and a half minutes to complete their thoughts on each issue. Concerns on full inclusion of disabled children in local schools were met with answers that ranged from making sure senators follow through with the bills they create to encouraging advocates to force the Department of Education's hand by filing lawsuits.
Attending were Delegate Donna M. Christensen and her challenger, Warren Mosler. Kenneth Mapp was the only person in a gubernatorial candidate team to show up. From a field of 18 senatorial hopefuls, nine attended: Hope Gibson, Wayne James, Naomi Joseph, Troy Mason, George Moore, Luther Renee, Gonzalo Rivera, Michael Thurland and Jimi Weber. The six sitting St. Croix senators were attending a legislative session to confirm judges to the V.I. Supreme Court. Gubernatorial candidate John deJongh sent a written apology, saying he had a previously scheduled appointment.
Correction: The Source erroneously reported there was no representation at the Voices That Count conference by the gubernatorial team of Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Dr. Cora Christian. Although Christian was not allowed to field questions during the panel discussion, she was in attendance. and able to make a three-minute introduction and closing. "All of us at some point in our lives will become disabled," Christian said. Knowing that blindness can be a direct result of diabetes and through proper care we can prevent this situation, Christian asked the audience to close their eyes for a few seconds to imagine what it would be like to live in the dark.
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