A special segment of the community grilled senatorial candidates Friday at the Voices That Count conference hosted by the V.I. University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.
Sixty or 70 people with disabilities, friends and family attended the forum at the UVI Great Hall on St. Croix. Seven Senate hopefuls answered questions in the morning and another seven participated in the afternoon session. Questions were written in advance and drawn from a box by the candidates. No one got off easy.
Important issues to the audience included access to mental health care, public transportation, identification cards, the Government Employees Retirement System, ADA compliance and jobs.
Most of the candidates replied that funding and the executive branch were major obstacles.
Not only were the questions direct, but several people brought up promises made and not kept before the last election.
Casandra Paul said that two years ago, candidates promised to hire individuals with disabilities for legislative offices. After that forum, she gave each one her resume, which included 22 years of employment at Hovensa. She heard nothing from the newly elected Legislature. Paul’s question was drawn by Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, who said she employs someone with disabilities and thinks maybe two other legislators do as well.
Another promise was brought up by a man with Parkinson’s disease, who reminded the candidates that two years ago, new, more accessible busses were to be in service soon. Instead, the new busses are too large to travel down the man’s road and turn around, and the steps are difficult to climb. Furthermore, there is not enough wheelchair seating, he said. Was it “falsehood” or “misconception” spoken by the candidates, the man asked.
There were questions about government issued identification cards, which also were promised before the last election. Candidate Malcolm McGregor and Sen. Sammuel Sanes said I.D. cards will be available soon. Sanes said funds and equipment are both available to produce cards by the end of November, as promised by the director of the Division of Motor Vehicles.
The lack of special education, psychiatric care and health care were concerns for many in the audience. There were stories of children and parents moving off island to get adequate schooling and services. People are also leaving the territory for access to Social Security Income (SSI), some said.
Most of the questions about advocating for the disabled community were supported by the candidates.
Almando “Rocky” Liburd was asked how he would make sure people with disabilities have work opportunities. The at-large candidate said there was “no roadmap,” but peoples’ strengths and skills should be matched with available positions.
Other questions included reopening senior centers, the Gov. Juan Luis Hospital mental health unit and providing residential care facilities. Although the candidates supported the issues in theory, funding was the most common drawback.
Candidate and former Sen. Neville James said reopening senior centers is a “financial and commitment issue.” He suggested that abandoned buildings owned by the government could be renovated and staffed.
“Not having a [psychiatric] facility open is such a disservice to the people of the Virgin Islands,” Vialet said. “The bigger disservice is to put [special needs] children into classes that are already filled.”
McGregor said that although energy is his first priority, education is second and he would extend the school day. Children learn in different ways and all must be accommodated, he said.
Sanes pointed out that he facilitated the opening of a fiber optic training school on St. Croix that has produced 32 certified graduates.
The candidates all enthusiastically agreed that disabled residents should be given jobs within the government and by economic development beneficiaries. They supported ADA accessibility, vocational rehabilitation and adequate public transportation. They agreed there were federal funds available through grants for services, and disabled people should have health insurance. Vialet said 50 percent of the population on St. Croix doesn’t have insurance and a lawsuit against the U.S. may be the only solution.
“Is it legal to exclude us from Obamacare when our children serve in the wars?” he asked.
Finally, the obvious question was asked by Stephanie Barnes, the territory’s ADA coordinator: “If everybody agrees, why are we asking the same questions every year?” Then, she answered her own question, saying that budgets for services and infrastructure for people with disabilities have not been included in V.I. government budgets.
After a few moments of silence, there was a consensus by the candidates that not only should funds be budgeted, but also an office should be set up for grant writers to apply for federal funds.
The candidates scheduled to appear in the afternoon forum session were: Jamila Russell, Sen. Diane Capehart, Robert Moorhead, Naomi Joseph, Arthur Joseph, Ronald Jones and Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly.
On Thursday, similar questions were addressed to the female gubernatorial candidates: Delegate Donna Christensen, Mona Barnes, Soraya Diase-Coffelt and Sheila Scullion. Candidate Kenneth Mapp did not attend. Delegate to Congress candidate Stacy Plaskett also answered questions.
The Voices That Count forum will be held Oct. 28 and 29 on St. Thomas in the Administration and Conference Center.
According to Dr. Yegin Habtes, VIUCEDD senior executive director, the forum is held every election year instead of a conference.
“The main purpose is to sit face to face with those seeking to be leaders and for them to see the problems people with disabilities are facing,” Habtes said.
Many of those in the audience then observe the winners in action and decide who they want to re-hire in the next election, he added.