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Lawmakers propose new Pa. cabinet department dedicated to issues on disabilities

Jan. 27—HARRISBURG — A bipartisan bill proposal in the Pennsylvania House looks to consolidate certain state programs for the disabled into a new executive department led by a cabinet-level secretary.

The forthcoming bill seeks to establish the Department of Disability Rights, Employment, Accessibility, and Mobility (DREAM). It would be included alongside established departments for transportation, education and the environment.

The bill's prime sponsor is Rep. Jessica Benham, D-Allegheny, a second-term legislator attuned to issues concerning disabilities. She is autistic and is also diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic connective-tissue disorder.

"One of the things we're trying to do is centralize the vast majority of services with which people with disabilities interact," Benham said. "When you're a person with a disability and you're trying to get services from the government, you might be interacting with four or five different departments. That can be really tricky."

Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Office of Developmental Programs, Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, Bureau of Disability Determination, Bureau of Early Intervention Services and the Accessibility Advisory Board would all shift into DREAM under the current proposal.

The secretary appointed to lead DREAM would directly advise the governor on issues concerning physical, intellectual, developmental and sensory impairments.

That would include funding and operating program services and collaborating with all levels of government, community groups and health care agencies to see through initiatives incorporated into a state plan of action. As an executive agency, it would have power to promulgate rules and regulations.

The DREAM proposal is modeled after Maryland's Department of Disabilities. It was first put forward last session under another name by Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, the House Majority Whip. Miller and Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny/Washington, both of whom have sponsored varied bills and initiatives on disabilities, are co-prime sponsors on the new bill version led by Benham.

Miller said DREAM is inspired, in part, from issues highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. One concern was when public officials released information about the pandemic, some of it considered potentially life-saving, it was included on websites that weren't compliant for people with disabilities, such as lacking software to help the visually impaired.

"We want to encourage that policies be created with those needs in mind from the start," said Miller, who's hosting his 11th Annual Disability & Mental Health Summit on April 18-19 in Pittsburgh. Learn more at www.disabilitysummit.com.

The topic of helping serve people with disabilities isn't often popular in the State Capitol, Miller said. Often, he said, it's used as fodder for legislative newsletters and photo opportunities but little else results. He's hopeful that the DREAM bill and forthcoming proposals addressing disability employment will garner not just attention but also action.

"Disability and mental health issues are nonpartisan in nature. It doesn't matter your demographic or party affiliation, certainly," Miller said. "If you've been touched by the fullness of the human experience that includes these diagnoses then you care about progress being made on this front."

Benham said DREAM could work to improve efficiencies in bureaucracy. As an example, she pointed to the creation in 2012 of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, a cabinet-level agency that had been under the Department of Health.

"There's something to be said for saving time and getting services more quickly," Benham said.

"I get to understand a little more closely from the result of this position just how bad the bureaucracy of state government is, and also understand the impact on this community from the result of my identity," she added. "To be able to be on the inside and push this legislation is really special."