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Bill Would Shine Light on Neglected Needs of Minorities with Disabilities

Advocate argues that disparities in access to healthcare require action from state government

Jane Dunhamn
Jane Dunhamn, mother of a 44-year-old daughter born with significant disabilities, says the state needs to take action to close the gap in healthcare available to minorities with disabilities.

Communities of color have less access to healthcare, but they also have higher rates of certain disabilities. That combination presents serious challenges to minorities that are suffering from these disabilities. Yet little attention has been given to the problem, which advocates say stems from racism, whether conscious or unconscious.

As a result, the Legislature is considering a bill -- S-900 -- that will study the issue and make recommendations to the governor and the Legislature as to what can be done.

Jane Dunhamn has taken a leading role in supporting the bill. As the mother of a 44-year-old daughter born with significant disabilities, Dunhamn said she is concerned about the support that her daughter will receive when she can no longer help her.

Dunhamn told a legislative panel that the state must look to systematically address the role of racism and discrimination in solving chronic inequities. She argued that addressing these inequities would require “reinventing and disrupting policy and practice.”

She also said that mainstream disability-rights organizations and government agencies must actively work on these issues.

“The disability community must learn to actively engage in a meaningful conversation about race, racism and, discrimination -- conscious and unconscious,” Dunhamn said.

"While very likely uncomfortable for many," she continued, "until the disability community can openly discuss preconceived notions or stereotypes about individuals who have a different skin color, culture, and speak a different language, those who hold the power of distributing resources will continue to see these individuals as outsiders to the mainstream culture with whom they are more familiar and comfortable.”

Dunhamn said there is a wide-ranging need in the state for improving access to services for minorities, adding that “the growing economic inequality in our country continues to feed the vicious cycle of limited access to quality employment, education, healthcare, transportation, housing, and other services for those struggling for a better life.”

But Dunhamn noted that there is still a need for more research on the intersection between socioeconomic disparities and their effect on residents with disabilities.

“When individuals also have a disability, the barriers to necessary services are indisputably exacerbated,” she said.

Bill sponsor Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex) expressed frustration that this and similar issues affecting minorities haven’t received state attention in the past. He described the measure as “a compromise bill,” adding that he had originally supported a state task force with minority members that would advise state officials.

“I just want to make you all aware that we have a voice too,” Rice said.

Dunhamn said there’s a need for more “culturally and linguistically responsive services.”

“Without talking about these differences, there is not opportunity for the people on the inside and outside to find common ground. It is only with the intimate knowledge of those seen as different that stereotypes can be broken,” Dunhamn said.

She said there’s a need for increased racial and ethnic diversity among many stakeholder groups, including university-affiliated programs, developmental disability councils, disability rights organizations, disability service systems, state policymakers, parent-driven education support agencies, and self-advocacy organizations.

Dunhamn added that while some federal offices have demonstrated a commitment to eliminating racial disparities, “other agencies relatively silent on this issue, when compared to the enthusiastic investments in self-determination, post-secondary education, self-advocacy networks, and employment.”

There are groups other than racial minorities who were underrepresented and whose needs deserved attention, Dunhamn said. For example, she said, the state lacks a shelter for women who have been the victim of domestic violence that also has the capacity to house their children with disabilities and allow them to receive a full range of services. She said she’s directed officials in New Jersey to such an agency in New York City to meet the needs of New Jersey residents in the past.

The bill drew broad support, including from the Arc of New Jersey, the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, and the New Jersey Black Issues Convention.

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