DIG Newsletter
December 2020
Each year, in December, instead of doing a newsletter for DIG, I take the opportunity to write a holiday letter to update our friends and clients about how we are doing, and what we have done over the past year. This past year has been difficult on all of us because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pandemic has also changed how we do things as a community.
clip art of the COVID-19 symbol a sphere with red flower clusters coming out of the sphere
For a disability rights advocacy center, it has required us to become dynamic and responsive to the needs of the community for those with all types of disabilities and in all facets of their lives. So, I wanted to share what we have learned and what we have been focusing on in the age of COVID-19, and how the lessons we have learned will last into the future:
clip art of a virtual employee
Employment – We have moved from a society where physical presence was an essential requirement of the job to where remote working is the norm. We have counseled many employees on how to restructure their jobs to make remote working a reality. This change will now make it more acceptable for employers to hire persons who are not able to work from a traditional jobsite or who cannot have a traditional schedule.
clip art of vote by mail with a blind woman with a service dog and a voting box coming out of a laptop
Voting – This year we represented the Florida Council of the Blind to obtain accessible vote-by-mail in Florida. The dangers of in-person voting for those who are immunocompromised or otherwise are concerned about contracting COVID was a viable fear that caused many to vote by mail. Unfortunately, secret voting was unavailable for persons who are blind or are print impaired. Now, a ballot will be available to download and fill out and print from a computer. Because of the availability of mail-in ballots, over 150 million Americans securely and safely voted. Because of the security of these voting systems, hopefully people will eventually be able to return their ballots online, so the ballots can be immediately tabulated, and a receipt provided to the voter in all accessible formats.
clip art of different colored houses
Congregate Housing for Persons with Disabilities and the Elderly – Due to the lack of adequate testing and protections for persons who live in skilled nursing facilities, the rate of deaths for these facilities has skyrocketed. Furthermore, the isolation because of visitor restrictions has increased mental health issues. For those who live in group homes, they have not received therapy services from outside providers, and the adult day training programs have been closed. As such there is not much activity to do. Lastly, because of these restrictions, the oversight of these facilities by family or other outside entities is minimal. DIG represents Caleb Walker, with Ben Crump and Arron Karger. Caleb was killed during a restraint by an employee at person at an understaffed group home. Notwithstanding several complaints to the State regarding recent abuse by Caleb’s family, and another complaint filed by the State relating to the unlawful use of restraints, this abusive behavior continued without any monitoring or corrective acts.
clip art of a prison door with a lock
Prison Services for Persons with Disabilities – The other congregate facility for persons with disabilities – prisons – have also had disproportionate deaths from COVID-19. In the Florida prison system, the ADA is viewed as solely a means to request accommodations, such as a wheelchair accessible prison cell, or an auxiliary aid or service, such as a special meal or a sign language interpreter. Any other modification of the services of a prison is viewed as to whether the failure to do such action would result cruel and unusual treatment, rather than whether the inmate requires a modification because of the person’s immunocompromised state. As a result, over 17,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID, over 200 inmates have died.  
clip art of a stethoscope with a heart at the end
Provision of Health Care and Services – Despite the evident danger of making persons who are immunocompromised wait in crowded lines for services, municipalities continue to insist that the traditional delivery systems can still be used. DIG advocated for at-home COVID-19 testing for those who are immunocompromised, as well as delivery of other essential goods and services directly to those who are most at-risk.
clip art of a ventilator
Rationing of Health Care – DIG spearheaded efforts in Florida to prevent ethical standards to restrict ventilators or other health care services to those who had limited life years as compared to others. A person should not be discounted because of the effect a disability may have on their life span, and no person is qualified to decide who may live and who may die.
clip art of fair housing sign with a house with an equal sign inside of it
Housing Discrimination – Discrimination against persons with disabilities in housing comprise more than 50% of all housing discrimination claims. At DIG we handle all types of housing discrimination claims. Because of lack of education and training relating to housing discrimination issues, housing providers continue to fail to understand that persons with disabilities are entitled to modification of rules or procedures to accommodate a disability. Over this past year, we have assisted in many cases where a condo or homeowners association attempts to evict or otherwise penalize a person with a developmental disability or mental illness when there is a meltdown or other behavioral issue. In many of these situations, the condo attorney becomes a tool to advance this discrimination. Further, the fear of COVID-19 has caused associations to implement no visitor rules, which served to exclude health care aids or family members that assist a person with a disability.  
clip art of an owl with a graduation cap reading books
Education – Remote education does not work for many children with a disability, and the lack of education and therapies will create a need for increased educational services and therapy once the pandemic has subsided. DIG works with many parents to develop educational plans and represents families throughout educational cases. 
clip art of the ASL sign for interpreters
Effective Communication for the Deaf – For years, the Deaf Community has complained how Video Remote Interpreters on a computer often disconnects, freezes, or lags, and how it is difficult to understand doctors or other staff at hospitals. Now, the hearing population finally understands with the increased use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams – communication is only as good as an internet connection, and often the connection at hospitals or doctor’s offices are really bad. DIG has fought for in person interpreters, especially in areas which the internet-based interpreters are just ineffective.
clip art of a brain with a red heart in the middle
Mental Health and Wellness in the Legal Profession – It is a well-known fact that lawyers have extremely high rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse – which only increased during the pandemic. Furthermore, there is a considerable stigma when such condition is known or treated. The Florida Bar has made substantial progress in the efforts to destigmatize mental illness and substance abuse, but there is far to go. DIG was successful in amending a rule to end the secret probationary conditional membership for persons with past “problems” with substance abuse or mental illness; however, we are still continuing the push to ensure that the Florida Board of Bar Examiners refrain from engaging in invasive investigations into mental health or past treatment of substance abuse issues in the absence of otherwise disqualifying conduct, or dictating certain methodologies of treatment for mental illness or substance abuse. We continue to hold that such invasion into issues that are prohibited by the ADA increase the stigma of mental health in the profession. DIG also represented Florida Bar Applicants in a petition before the Supreme Court of Florida for conditional admission due to the postponement of the Bar Exam and the mental health and the financial consequences of such postponement.  
lucy the dog holding a stuffed banana toy
Animals in the provision of Mental Health and Wellness – As those who know me, I am all about the animals. Animals increase wellness and Lucy is my coworker. Since the pandemic, there has been a rise in the adoption of animals from shelters, and due to remote working, one’s pet has become co-workers. As top dog of the Animal Law Section, we started Justice’s Best Friend Day on June 12th, to celebrate the work that animals do in our justice system. In addition, Lucy is providing special Florida Bar[k] Cards for any animal assistant that asks for one. 

In addition, we have assisted many people with emotional support animals and service animals. This past year, both the Department of Housing and Urban Development has implemented new guidance, and the Florida Legislature enacted a new law to further define what is an emotional support animal. We believe that animals can be an essential element in therapy for persons with disabilities, as well as an element of mental health and wellness for those without disabilities.
pedro and gina sitting outside in front of Kristi House
DIG also was the recipient of a Children’s Trust Innovation Grant that allowed us to create a Facility Dog Project. We worked with partners from the child welfare and criminal justice system to create a formal facility dog program where the facility dog becomes the “employee” of the organization. Kristi House volunteered to be the site of the pilot project and Pedro the Dog has become the official Kristi House Facility Dog. We look forward to expanding this project in the future and having a team of Facility Dogs embedded throughout the system to help children, families, and employees within the system get comfort and support from a fluffy, cuddly dog.
Daily Business Review 16th Annual most effective Lawyers 2020 public interest award to Matthew W. Dietz with a gold and black background
Every year has had its challenges, and 2020 has been a year of challenges and a year of growth. I was proud to be recognized as one of the Daily Business Review’s 2020 Most Effective Lawyers for DIG’s responsiveness to disability issues during the pandemic. This could not have been done without the hard work and dedication of everyone at DIG. Hopefully, 2020 has created more awareness of the needs of our community members who live with disabilities, and what we can do to live in a more caring and equitable community.
Disability Independence Group | www.justdigit.org