Around the same time Governor Charlie Baker was delivering a speech about the need for age-friendly, accessible housing, a small band of residents in wheelchairs gathered at the entrance to his State House office suite to draw attention to their own accessibility issues.
A velvet rope and two staff aides blocked them from entering the reception area. In the Baker administration, accessibility is more relative theory than absolute gospel.
“The governor is not available at this time,” declared Kelly Govoni, director of constituent services. She could not say when he might be because “the governor has a very busy schedule” and “you have to go through appropriate channels.” Neither would she tell them the name of Baker’s scheduler or his chief of staff. At one point, Christian Nakkashian, the deputy director of constituent services, said that giving out such information is “not in my job description.” Nothing broke this rote response. Govoni and Nakkashian stood their ground even after one woman in the group suffered a seizure, fell onto the marble floor, was attended to by state troopers, and was rolled away on a stretcher.
“You’re giving the runaround to people who can’t run,” said Paul W. Spooner, executive director of MetroWest Center for Independent Living. (For the record, the runaround was nondiscriminatory: Govoni would not tell me her name, or that of her sidekick. She told me to look it up on the state government website, which I did and later confirmed with Baker’s press office.)
These activists are upset about changes the Baker administration is making to a state board set up to advocate for equal access for people with disabilities. Under state law, the Architectural Access Board is empowered to make sure public buildings, parking, some housing and businesses, including restaurants and movie theaters, are accessible to people with disabilities. According to the statute, the board “shall employ an executive director” to carry out its mission. But after the board’s longtime executive director died last January, the state Division of Professional Licensure asserted control over the hiring process; and the new director will report to that department instead of to board members.
Rick Glassman, director of advocacy for the Disability Law Center, said that’s more than a procedural or turf issue — it’s a violation of law. “There’s a real substantive agenda here to try to erode the protections of people with disabilities who have relied upon this board and instead substitute the interest of builders and developers,” said Glassman.
According to Bill Henning, director of the Boston Center for Independent Living, “community members stopped by the governor’s office at least a dozen times to raise concerns about the process for hiring the new director.” Advocates met once with officials representing the Division of Professional Licensure and once with Jordan Maynard, a former GOP field director who is now Baker’s director of boards and commissions.
When the disability activists turned up at the State House, they encountered what Nakkashian told them was “the face of the Baker administration.” Or, what activist Rhoda Gibson called “a brick wall.” There was some chanting. But mostly, there were heartfelt words from people who want what everyone wants — the ability to live life to the fullest. In their case, they need government to make the challenges less daunting. “The face of the Baker administration” offered not the slightest hint of understanding that requirement. A Baker spokesperson said protesters “were greeted and listened to by the governor’s office staff and their requests were recorded.” No explanation was given for the change in hiring or governing policy.
At the end of the protest, Chris Hoeh, who represents the United Spinal Association, read a letter addressed to Baker, requesting “immediate action to protect the independence and integrity of the Architectural Access Board.” The letter asks for a response from Baker by Nov. 1.
“The governor needs to get on the right side of history,” said Hoeh, who shattered his spine in a skiing accident. That takes more than words and much more than what these citizens got outside Baker’s office. They plan to return if they don’t hear back from the governor.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.