Minnesotans pack Capitol Rotunda for Disability Services Day

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Hundreds of people packed the Minnesota Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday, calling for lawmakers to invest in people with disabilities.

The group came together in St. Paul to advocate for a couple of bills aimed at bringing more resources for people with disabilities.

The annual Disability Services Day event brought more than 2,000 people to the Capitol Tuesday, asking lawmakers to pass the legislation.

Advocates say the state’s massive projected budget surplus makes it the perfect time to make it happen.

Nicole Atherton was one of the many Minnesotans who showed up at the Capitol Tuesday morning. Atherton, who has Down syndrome, made the trek from Moorhead. Shannon Bock, the executive director of the nonprofit that provides Atherton her daily support services, also made the drive.

“So, Nicole depends on a [direct support professional] every day,” Bock said.

Bock says direct support professionals aren’t just something that those living with disabilities deserve but something they need. She added that more than 3,500 Minnesotans are currently on waitlists for one.

“For some people, it means being at home all the time. … Or they end up in the hospital setting or some other long-term care facility,” Bock said.

Those who specialize in disability services say those support professionals make only around $15 an hour — less than what they deserve.

“So, as we watched in the last year, fast food, retail increased their starting wages to $17-$18 an hour,” Bock said.

“At organizations like ours, we don’t have the ability to do that. We rely on the legislature to kick in those dollars,” she added.

Asked if lawmakers are prepared to raise the Disability Waiver Rate this session, Senate Human Services Committee Chair Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, said, “So absolutely.”

Hoffman and Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said the Senate is prepared to pass a budget bill next week to raise the pay for 53,000 job openings.

“$4 billion is what it would cost,” Hoffman said.

The pair said that price tag shouldn’t stand in the way of protecting the states’ most vulnerable citizens.

“This is truly a matter of life and death,” Abeler said.

A similar proposal by Abeler last year fell apart in negotiations.