Happy Holidays from Matt...
Dear my friends–

Since we started Disability Independence Group, I have a tradition of writing an update for my friends in a Christmas letter. 2019 has been a one of our busiest years, and we are blessed to be able to be in a position where we can help others to ensure that all persons have an equal opportunity to live and be productive in the community. I wanted to give you an update of what we have been up to this year.
1.         Ensuring that Arnaldo Rios-Soto and others with developmental disabilities can get the services they need at their home and in their community.
Arnaldo Rios-Soto and his sister Miriam Rios.  Miriam and Arnaldo both have dark hair, miriam is wearing a pink shirt, and arnaldo is wearing a black shirt.
When I first met Arnaldo Rios-Soto and his family, the focus of my representation was to ensure that he received compensation for being the victim of a shooting while he was sitting in the middle of the street playing with a truck, and the subsequent efforts to frame him when his aide was shot However, over the past two years, I have learned that maintaining adequate care and treatment for Arnaldo’s needs in the community is a most difficult task. 

For Arnaldo, and other persons with intensive behavioral needs, getting services at the family home is nearly impossible, and even having long term adequate care at a group home is difficult. In Florida, thousands of persons with autism and other developmental disabilities are unlawfully placed in short term psychiatric facilities solely because of the lack of adequate in-home behavioral services.  

Now Arnaldo is home and has emergency behavioral care because he was abandoned by his group home operator at a hospital emergency room. He is happy at home, but we know its going to be a struggle.

Housing is insecure for all persons with developmental disabilities. DIG currently has three clients that have been evicted or penalized from their homes because of a behavioral manifestation or a meltdown. 
2.        More nerurodiverse community-based events like the Supper Social Club
supper social club participants sitting eating dinner at CPK
Every first Monday of the month, we share a meal with forty of my new friends at the DIG Supper Social Club.  At California Pizza Kitchen in Coral Gables, we share a meal with people with all types of developmental and intellectual disabilities  and get together and chat about music, sports, anime, movies and other areas of interest. 

Community integration is the opportunity to break bread with all members of the community. The City of Coral Gables awarded California Pizza Kitchen an award for its efforts at including persons with disabilities into community events, and we are proud to be the organizer!!!
3. Expanding our Wallet Card and training program to encourage safe interaction with law enforcement
Each year, many persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities have opportunities to interact with police, and without disclosure of a disability or training for the police, this could turn into an ugly situation. DIG has made thousands of Wallet Cards for persons on the Autism Spectrum to use as a tool to disclose their disability at their choosing.  

This is a service we have done without charge for years because of the importance of safe interactions. But, one of my favorite activities that DIG presents is interactive training for persons with autism and police. The importance of in-person interaction between members of the police force and actual members of the community who live with autism presents a real-life scenario training for police, and positive experience for persons with disabilities.
Claudia supervising an interaction outside between a student with a disability and an officer during a wallet card training
4.        Removal of policy barriers to encourage mental health and wellness in the legal profession
This year, I had the privilege of representing Julius Hobbs, a veteran of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, who was faced with barriers from the Florida Board of Bar Examiners because of an extensive investigative process that discriminates against applicants with past histories of mental illness or alcoholism. 

The Florida Bar and the Florida Board of Bar Examiners maintain rules that, by their terms, creates barriers to admission to practice for persons that have sought treatment for mental illness or substance use. While the American Bar Association has pushed for change for rules so past bad conduct is the focus rather than past disability, the legal profession continues to be behind the curve. 

On behalf of members of the bar, I drafted a petition to change the Florida Bar rules to end the practice of second-class membership for those with past histories of mental health issues or substance abuse issues. Hopefully, in 2020, I will draft a petition to remove the ability for the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to investigate past histories of substance abuse or mental illness in the absence of otherwise disqualifying bad conduct.  
5.        Increase wellness through the Animal Law Section of the Florida Bar
Debbie sitting outside and holding a white and brown goat
I have explained my involvement in the Animal Law section as the Yang to the Ying of my practice. Animal law gives me balance in seemingly opposite or contrary forces in my practice that are complementary and interconnected. 

In a profession where we are conditioned to be adversarial -- having a puppy pit and handing your opposing counsel or judge a puppy – breaks the adversarial construct. While Animal law touches every type of law practice, interaction with animals humanizes us, and allows us to take a break from the stress of everyday practice. 

At the Animal Law Section, we have taken fun in the legal profession to a higher level.  The Animal Law Section is the fastest growing section of the Florida Bar, we have the best social media presence and have the best merch! We have attempted to integrate animals and wellness by continuing the puppy pit at our conventions, having goat yoga with Downward Goat, and hopefully cat café style CLEs about animal law.  

Join me as a member (lawyer or non-lawyer) as a member of the Animal Law Section of the Florida Bar
6.        Increase the use of animals as healthful partners for humans
For years, DIG has represented persons with disabilities who partner with service animals or emotional support animals. DIG's clients have used animals either as service animals, when an animal is trained to do a specific task, or as emotional support animals, when the animal lessens symptoms of depression, anxiety or other disabilities. In each of our cases we have seen how the animal improves life considerably

So, with Lucy's active assistance, we have expanded our purpose and mission to encourage the use of animals for children are exposed to emotional trauma in the criminal justice and in the dependency system. We are currently studying the feasibility of encouraging children in the dependency system. DIG is in the process of working on a grant to embed a facility dog at Kristi House, our child advocacy center, in Miami to work with the staff to assist children who are victims of sexual abuse.
7.        Ensure that parents with disabilities do not have their children removed from them
Parents with disabilities are many times more likely to be the subject of child dependency actions than parents who do not have disabilities. This year, we prevailed on ensuring that child protective investigators can be liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Court chose not to hear the case. 

Next year our goal is to ensure that Child Protective Investigators maintain standards to ensure that parents with disabilities are not automatically considered to be an unfit parent and are entitled to accommodations in any dependency matter. 
8. Effective communication to ensure that information is available for all persons and any disability 
Jan standing with her dog in front of a sign for miami senior high school
Last year, Cheylla Silva and J.P. Jebian prevailed in a decision that found that effective communication for the Deaf means that a Deaf person is entitled the same level of communication about medically relevant information that is substantially equal to that afforded to non-disabled patients. While we are still fighting for JP and Cheylla, we continue to train and litigate cases to ensure that the Deaf community receives communication and equal access to medical and all other services.  

In January, DIG and Brown Goldstein and Levy, represented a 20+ year veteran of Miami-Dade Schools, Jan Bartleson, to resolve a monumental case which ensured that all the software used by Blind employees of the District would be accessible for their use.

As part of the goal of effective communication, as part of our grant related to domestic violence, DIG developed a guide about how a victim/survivor can get a protection order in simplified language and pictures so all persons could have access to the courts and understand how the domestic violence process works even with if the person has an intellectual disability.  
9. Housing Modifications and Accommodations
Mr Shaw in his wheelchair hugging his dog
Over 50 percent of all fair housing cases are disability related, and besides dogs, cats and ducks as assistance animals, we have represented victims of discrimination that have been denied housing because of the belief that the housing was not accessible enough for them, denials of pool lifts, parking spaces, live in aides, ramps and many other accommodations and modifications. 

A person with a disability is entitled to an accommodation to a rule or modification to the premises if it is reasonable and necessary to have equal enjoyment of a home!

DIG has always been on the forefront of the definition of what is considered to be a reasonable accommodation in housing. This year, one of DIG’s significant victories has been Albert Schaw's decision where a person with a disability could have a financial accommodation when a person’s lack of income is an effect of a disability.  
10. Finally eradicating discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status
Each year, I continue to be outraged that there continues to be discrimination based on a victim’s HIV status. I am honored to be a part of these cases, and I am embarrassed that such cases still need to be brought.
11. Access and increase the voting power for persons with disabilities
Access the vote logo in red and blue with the word access the in white letters with a red background and vote in white letters with a blue background and the state of florida in the middle in white
Over twenty percent of Americans are persons with disabilities, but our nation’s disability voter turnout gap – estimated to be between 5.7 and 7.2 percentage points (or roughly 2-3 million votes) nationally across the last three presidential elections. Disability Rights Florida and Disability Independence Group worked with other advocates and self-advocates. Our campaign has assisted states in constructing nonpartisan campaigns intended to increase the political participation of voters with disabilities through advocating for increased elections access and engagement of candidates on disability issues. The aim is to increase the political power of people with disabilities.
12. An enduring commitment to equal rights for all
matt holding a plaque with bar president john stewart and past president michelle suskauer
In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King stated that Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly . "

While our primary mission is to increase opportunities for persons with disabilities, we realize that all persons are entitled to equal opportunity to be members of society and to be free from discrimination based on immutable characteristics. In the coming year, we will continue to stand by our commitment to equal justice, including upholding local human rights ordinances, and representing victims of invidious discrimination.
The work DIG does is the result of a team of hard working attorneys and staff that have the commitment and drive to believe in the cause for equal protection and equal opportunity for persons with disability.

The work is not easy, and there are few that would accept the challenge, so, I personally thank all of those who are members of the DIG team, and I would be lost without them!!
10 members of the DIG staff sitting at a table smiling at the camera the room is decorated with christmas decorations
We depend on your support, so if you like what we do, please press donate below!
DIG in the News
Calendar for 2020
Supper Social Club
January 6, 2020
California Pizza Kitchen

Supper Social Club
February 3, 2020
California Pizza Kitchen

Supper Social Club
March 2, 2020
California Pizza Kitchen

Supper Social Club
March 30, 2020
California Pizza Kitchen

Supper Social Club- Trivia Night
April 9, 2020
John Martin's Irish Pub

Supper Social Club
May 4, 2020
California Pizza Kitchen

Supper Social Club
June 1, 2020
California Pizza Kitchen
black rectangle box outlined with a yellow line and the words Supper social club in the box in white
Supper Social Club
California Pizza Kitchen, 300 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, FL 33134

01/06/20 6:30pm - 01/06/20 8:30pm

I'll be there!
I can't make it