In the past two blog entries I have written about bill ideas that were proposed by individuals. This week I am highlighting a successful effort by two disability advocacy groups to help an idea become a law. The first group is the Florida Youth Council (FYC). FYC is an organization of young people with a variety of disabilities who advocate for the needs of their peers as well as helping the community as a whole better understand the challenges they face.
Committed advocates from FYC, including one board member from Pasco County, met in our office in 2006 and got the ball rolling on what would eventually become a law pertaining to disability awareness in Florida’s public schools. I recall at that first of many meetings a very articulate and persuasive young man from our community who presented FYC’s idea. Individuals with disabilities make up a significant segment of our population. While the public school system has made great strides in teaching and training students with special needs, their peers in school have little understanding of not only the challenges these students face, few know about the contribution people with disabilities have made throughout history. Following that first gathering Senator Fasano agreed to champion their cause in the Florida Legislature.
The first step was the adoption of a Senator Fasano-sponsored resolution in the spring of 2007 which declared October 1-15, 2007 to be “Disability History & Awareness Weeks.” The resolution encouraged public schools and universities to provide instruction on disability history, people with disabilities, and the disability rights movement. A resolution was a good start but it did not have the force of law. The next move was to enshrine in statute the very issues the resolution sought to accomplish.
Whenever large groups of people contribute to something as big as creating a law it is always dangerous to thank a list of people because inadvertently one or two names will be left off. Instead, I will name the two prime movers in the disability community that led their respective organizations through the spring 2008 legislative session. J.T. Davis of the Florida Youth Council and Becki Forsell of Yes! of America United worked together and independently, as did their respective memberships, to inform lawmakers across the state of Senator Fasano’s Senate Bill 856.
The legislation gave Florida’s 67 county school boards the authority to declare the first two weeks of October as “Disability History & Awareness Weeks.” In addition to the aforementioned history of disability rights and important historical figures with disabilities, the bill sought to bring greater awareness to the problem of bullying that students with disabilities face. Additionally, the legislation had a goal of developing the self-esteem of students with disabilities so that they could gain the confidence to continue into post-secondary education or enter the workforce.
J.T. was an almost daily presence in the Capitol that year. Becki would periodically visit Tallahassee but also worked the phones from Tampa. In both cases these two committed advocates and the volunteers they worked with helped this ground-breaking bill pass both the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate with unanimous votes. Governor Charlie Crist signed the bill into law on June 13, 2008.
Disability awareness is part of the public school code because of an idea proposed by a group of people with personal challenges. So that others could better understand the needs of their peers, these inspiring advocates helped that idea become a Florida law.
I welcome your questions about the legislative process, state government or any related matters. Please feel free to leave your questions in the comment section and I will answer them in an upcoming post. If there is a specific topic you would like me to write about please let me know as well. Thank you for your readership.