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Amplifying Their Voice

It was while on a trip to the South Dakota legislature this spring that Black Hills Works President and CEO Brad Saathoff was reminded of how important it is for people with disabilities to be heard....

It was while on a trip to the South Dakota legislature this spring that Black Hills Works President and CEO Brad Saathoff was reminded of how important it is for people with disabilities to be heard—with their own voice. Keven Moulton, a person supported by Black Hills Works, had been invited to serve on a state financial work group that is working on employment laws in preparation of Medicaid waiver renewals in 2018. “Some leaders from the state had proposed changes that could affect his job,” Saathoff said.

Moulton took the opportunity to voice his concern, asking how his job at Ellsworth Air Force Base might change, or if it could even be eliminated. It was a defining moment for Moulton in his growth as an advocate for himself and others with disabilities, and it opened the door for better communication with state leaders.

“I’m so proud of him,” Saathoff said. “It has reframed the entire issue and led to a very extensive dialogue. It changed how they are looking at the issues and it meant so much more coming from him.”

That is just one example of how effective advocacy can be. For legislators to hear from someone directly affected by their decisions was impactful. It is also desperately needed right now, more than ever before, as organizations like Black Hills Works continue to face budget cuts.

The gap between the dollars distributed by the state and federal government and the real costs to provide services continues to widen. “We are dependent on Medicaid and state and federal funding sources.”

“A lot of times those entities don’t understand what we’re providing for the community—and that what they provide, and what it actually takes to support our community, are very different.” –Brad Saathoff

The trip with Moulton to Pierre was one of two that Black Hills Works has organized this year to meet with legislators. “The people we support don’t naturally have a voice,” Saathoff said. “We are changing that—the people we support are, actually.”

Barb Larsen and Lisa Batteen, support specialists, co-lead People First, an advocacy group made up of people with disabilities who lead and support advocacy efforts. The group has grown in recent years. “They are learning that their voice needs to be heard and they can have an opinion,” Larsen said.

Batteen added that Black Hills Works invests in the people they support by helping them understand the topics they are speaking about and including them in discussions about funding. “If we want other people in the community to respect and accept all people, we need to as well,” she said. “You don’t want people to just be tokens—but to really be part of things and to be able to speak about issues.”

“It was awesome,” she continued, “to sit back and let them tell their stories to our elected officials.”

Legislators, Saathoff said, realize that there needs to be more funding. “They realize that the funding has been so stretched and the system is starting to break,” he said. “Now they need to act.”

That’s why it’s important for people with disabilities to represent themselves, or be represented accurately, as the conversation continues nationally about Medicaid. “We feel an obligation to know what their wishes are,” Saathoff continued. “We don’t just assume what their needs are. We ask and then we communicate that to funders.”

Local community support is also as important as it ever has been, as it fills in some of the gaps left in the budget. “There is a greater need for more people to realize that the system is stressed and we need them to be a voice with us,” he said. “Medicaid pays for health and safety needs only. For a meaningful life for people we support, we rely on other funds—the support of our donors and community.”

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