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How is ABLE Americans Making a Difference in the World of Disability?
In this interview, Melissa Ortiz, Senior Advisor for ABLE Americans, discusses the mission and initiatives of the organization focused on advocating for the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities. The conversation highlights several key points:
Focus on Human Dignity: Melissa emphasizes the importance of recognizing the inherent dignity and value of every individual, regardless of their disabilities. She believes that every person is made in the image of God and should be treated with respect and consideration.
Goals and Programs: ABLE Americans aims to create impactful policies, resources, and support systems for individuals with disabilities. Melissa mentions their plans to develop an app, a speaker’s bureau, legal assistance, and a job finder tool. They seek to address a range of issues including education, employment, healthcare, and more.
Collaboration and Advocacy: Melissa shares her commitment to collaborating with various organizations, government agencies, and policymakers to promote inclusion and positive change for people with disabilities. She discusses her efforts to engage with politicians from both sides of the aisle to ensure that disability issues are properly addressed in legislation.
Championing Individuality: Melissa underscores the need to view each person with a disability as a unique individual rather than defining them solely by their condition. She advocates for breaking down stereotypes and advocating for policies that empower individuals to participate fully in society.
Involvement and Support: Melissa encourages individuals, families, caregivers, and educators to get involved by sharing personal stories, contributing resources, and connecting with ABLE Americans. She stresses the importance of joining together to create positive change and to support one another on the journey toward greater inclusivity.
Overall, the interview provides insights into the meaningful work of ABLE Americans, shedding light on their mission to create a more inclusive and supportive society for people with disabilities.
Connect with Melissa:
- Twitter: @dcbelleonwheels
- Instagram: @dcbelleonwheels
- Facebook: @melissa.d.ortiz
- Email: mOrtiz@nationalcenter.org
Connect with ABLE Americans:
- Website: https://nationalcenter.org/programs/able-americans/
- Twitter: @AbleAmericans
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“LazyDay” by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Meet Today’s Guest:
Melissa Ortiz serves the National Center for Public Policy Research as the organization’s Senior Advisor for the ABLE Americans Project.
In her role, she develops the project’s strategic plan, marshals key resources and helps oversee the implementation of the project. She also assists the National Center’s president in identifying necessary contractors, employees, strategic partners, stakeholders and donors and serves as a key spokesperson.
Melissa identifies as a “happy warrior” and is enthusiastic about driving a dialogue between people living with disabilities or chronic illness and policy makers across the political spectrum, especially conservatives. She has worked in the classroom in Nashville, Tennessee and in the nonprofit sector in New York City and Washington, DC. She was honored to serve as President Trump’s Commissioner of the Administration on Disabilities. The first female board member of The Conservative Caucus, one of the oldest conservative groups in existence, she currently resides in Washington, D.C. with her husband Tony and Service Dog Dachshund, Annie Oakley.
Episode #74: Advocacy for all: ABLE Americans and Disability Rights
How is ABLE Americans Making a Difference in the World of Disability?
(Recorded June 15, 2023)
Full Transcript of Interview:
Tonya: So welcome back to Water Prairie. I have Melissa Ortiz back with me again today. If you watched episode 72, um, you met her already and if not go back and watch that one so you can find a little bit more about her. So if you missed that episode, I’ll put the link in the show notes below so you can go back and see it. But, um, but Melissa’s back again today, and we’re going to be talking about what she’s doing with ABLE Americans. So Melissa is the Senior Advisor with ABLE Americans. It’s a program created to support Americans who are living with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities, and they help to set the policies for those individuals. Did I explain that correctly, Melissa?
Melissa: You did. You did great.
Excellent. Well, welcome back to Water Prairie.
Thank you. Thanks for having me back.
Now, um, we’re playing our game of two, two truths and a lie. And even though Melissa has been with us before, I wanted her to play the game as many times as I could get her to.
So, I don’t know if you guessed her lie the first time. I’m not gonna tell you now. You have to go check and see where that is on social media. But we’re gonna play it again because she’s agreed to bring some more facts for me. So, if you’re listening for the first time, we’ve been asking each guest to bring in a list of three facts or pseudo-facts about themselves.
And your job as a listener is to try to figure out which of the three is a lie. And you can leave your answer in the comment section of the YouTube video, or you can go to social media on Instagram or Twitter and leave your guess there on the post that matches this episode. So, Melissa, what are your three facts for this episode?
Well, one time, I owned two Newfoundlands. who both weighed in at 200 pounds each. So I was marching around with 400 pounds of dogs at any given time. I also served as Ms. Wheelchair New York in 2005. And lastly, I participated in the track and field Olympic trials before becoming a full-time wheelchair user.
Wow. Now, if you’re not sure how those fit together, go back and listen to episode 72. You might get some clues or will they be clues? We’ll see . So go and le le leave your answer. If you’re going to do it on social media, listen to the episode first, then go leave your answer and um, we’ll see how, how you’re doing on that.
So, um, this episode I want to dig into what ABLE Americans is all about. Um, what are these policies that they’re doing, how are they getting into it and all. So let’s get started with just defining what is ABLE Americans and how did it get started?
Well, ABLE Americans is a limited government free market approach to all things disability policy.
Whether it’s… It’s education, housing, transportation, employment, and one of my big passions is, um, all things HHS, Health and Human Services, Medicare and Medicaid. So it is a limit, it’s not, it’s the idea that yes, the money is important and the government should create a safety net for the most vulnerable people among us, but.
People still need to have the right of self-determination. And the government needs to provide the framework, not run the whole boat, not drive the whole boat. The way that this all got started was in 2011. I, I, we moved to D. C. in 2008. Um, and as I watched as Obamacare became law, and all these things were happening, And I noticed that there were all these disability groups that were always angry and always yelling and always chanting.
And one day there was a group that they were like, label jars not people, label jars not people. And I, I didn’t understand what they were talking about. And I don’t think they understood what they were talking about. Come to find out they were protesting budget cuts. And I’m not sure what the chant had to do with budget cuts.
But I discovered that even though the Americans with Disabilities Act that became law in 1990 was a bipartisan effort, conservatives, Republicans, and specifically fiscal conservatives have um, seated the field on disability issues. I couldn’t find anybody that was right of center that was doing disability issues that didn’t result in more government intervention.
So I founded Able Americans. Everybody thought it was a nice idea and there were a lot of people that I know were behind my back saying, well isn’t that cute? She thinks she’s going to make a difference all by herself in how we do policy. Well, I did make a difference in some situations. I began to bang the gong because I think I’m one of the few people in America who actually read all 2, 000 plus pages of Obamacare and could cite chapter and verse of where the problems were for people with pre-existing conditions, disabilities, chronic illness, special needs, whatever you want to call it.
Um, it… So, I came up with this group and I wanted to focus on what we could do, not that we, not simply that our bodies were disabled, but that we were capable of being work, of being workers, of being good, productive, tax-paying citizens. And there’s nothing that will make a, a Republican’s eyes light up faster than telling you, telling them that you’re going to help somebody become a wage-earning taxpayer.
Not because they like to charge taxes, but because they like to manage the money. It gained more traction that way. I struggled and struggled. I had a lot of great support, but it just, I just couldn’t seem to grow and get traction. Then in 2016, President Trump was elected and in 2017, I became a member of his administration and I had to shut down Able Americans because I couldn’t, it was considered a conflict of interest.
Then, after I left the administration before the term was over. I didn’t know what was coming next. Turns out I had breast cancer. So, and this all has to do with what ABLE Americans is. Because I discovered what I already kind of knew from some other experiences that I’d had. I discovered going through breast cancer treatment that there’s a lack of understanding of the medical needs of people living with disabilities when it comes to medical needs outside of their specific disability.
they didn’t have accessible tables in the radiation lab. Where I needed to get radiation treatment for the, for the cancer. They, we had to go, and part of this was because of Covid, but we had to basically force them to obey the law and guide and regulations to allow my husband and service dog to be with me during chemo.
I, I mean, just all these things. So I learned that there was a, a lot of, a lack of knowledge and just plain old bad policy on the books. Right about the time, in fact it was a year ago on June 20th, I had a screaming fit before the God of the Universe and said, look God, if you want me to do Able Americans, then I need for you to bring a think tank that will buy Able Americans from me so that I don’t have to do office space and I don’t have to do fundraising and I don’t have to do administrative stuff, that I can just focus on the policy and on the building of coalitions and allies and getting the message out.
About that time, I got an email from my dear friend, Paul Teller, who is, I call him my faux brother, and he calls me the sister that he never ever wanted and got stuck with. And so, he sent me an introductory email to a man named David Ridenour from the National Center for Public Policy Research, and we had lunch the beginning of July, and I went to the lunch thinking it was the 45 minute Because he, because Paul said, listen, he wants to talk to you about able Americans.
I thought, yeah, right. Okay, fine. I’ll go to this meeting. That’s great. And, um, I went to the meeting kicking and screaming just to shut Paul up and it turns out that David came at it because Paul had said to him, she’s my go to for all things right of center with disability policy and she’s my go to for building bridges between left and right on disability policy.
He was kind of going to himself. Yeah, right. Okay. So we both went for what we thought was going to be a 45-minute courtesy lunch and it was the day after. So it was, it was the day after I pitched this screaming fit before the Lord. And. A 45-minute courtesy lunch became a three-hour strategy session on how ABLE Americans was going to be acquired by National Center.
I would come on board to run it and still be allowed to do my speaking things that I wanted to do, and how exactly we were going to set up the very first conservative, ideologically conservative policy shop on disabilities since the passage of the ADA. And I call it building an airplane in flight, and we are building it.
Building that airplane in flight. And I have a great team behind me at National Center. Um, I, David is very good at managing my snarkiness. And, um, I’m learning that sometimes my snarkiness can be a bit disrespectful and I need to, to can it. But he has a heart because he has two children with intellectual disabilities who have autism.
He understands disability policy because he, he lost his wife to breast cancer right before covid. And then covid happened and he found himself stuck at home 24 hours a day with a son who was very low functioning autism and violent.
And he found out that Civil rights were being violated because children with educational disabilities are supposed to get 20, supposed to get 365 services in any, in any situation. And that wasn’t happening. Then he said, he tried to get all these different people to, to get interested. And he said, wait a minute, I’m the president of my own think tank.
I’ll just hire somebody that does this. And then through just a. a set of God-ordained circumstances, um, and conversations this came to be. And it’s been really fun to be able to pull my policy chops and my, um, play nice with others chops, which I apparently still need to work on because I get really twitchy when people say things like, well, shouldn’t everybody with a disability just live in an institution?
I don’t understand why the ADA requires a wheelchair-accessible bathroom to which I, before I could stop myself, I looked at this older gentleman and I said, Well, I sort of like to be able to go to the bathroom when I’m in public. I don’t want to have to wait until I get home or wear a diaper. And he said, Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.
And, you know. It’s, you know, you don’t know what you don’t know until you find out that you didn’t know that. So, that is how Able Americans came to be, and we are focusing on a couple of things. The, one of the biggest things that I’m tickled to death that we are doing is a deep dive into all federal disability programs.
Right now we’re starting at HHS. And we’re going to look at the money, and where’s it going? Is it really serving people with disabilities? And does there need to be a triage in how, you know? Does everybody with autism really need to go in one bucket or do they need to be tiered responses to what their level of need is?
Does everybody who’s blind need to go in one bucket or do they need to be tiered as to what their needs are? That sort of thing. And we are hoping to look at that and recommend policy to the Congress and to state governments about better ways to serve people with disabilities and bring them fully into mainstream American society to the best of their ability.
Best of their ability to integrate. Another policy initiative that we’re working on that I am really excited about is Medicaid portability. I ran into a member of Congress last week who asked me what I was working on. And I said, Medicaid portability, he said, isn’t already portable. I said, No, I said, if somebody leaves Colorado and wants to move to New Hampshire, they lose all their coverage until they can start over and I don’t know what the situation, you have to become a resident of the new state, and then you have to get on the waiting list to get on Medicaid.
It’s not an automatic thing. And this has to be done differently. We have to do it differently. Um, Annie apparently agrees. So, we have to do it.
That’s something a lot of our parents are interested in. Because they can’t relocate without starting that wait all over again.
I need those stories because if I can get in front of governors and tell those stories, I think we can get, make a real difference into how quickly we can get this done.
Because from what I understand, it can be done with an executive order in the state. The governor can just say, I will accept Medicaid from this state or I will accept Medicaid from that state. But I’m doing some more research into how that’s going to work. I, you know, if any of your parents, the parents who are having those difficulties or adults who are on Medicaid are having those difficulties, I know of one, one acquaintance who had a full ride to Berkeley for a PhD program and she couldn’t go because she would lose her Medicaid coverage.
And, I mean, it was her dream program and she had to turn it down because she had a very significant, um, Neurological disability and couldn’t be without the coverage. Her medication alone costs 25, 000 a month. And that’s just not feasible for somebody without insurance. So if anybody wants to reach out to me, I’m going to give my contact information early.
Um, you can find me on Instagram @dcbelleonwheels. Same thing on Twitter. Um, on Facebook, I am. We have an Able Americans Facebook page, but we also have, I am Melissa.D.Ortiz5. I think or maybe just just look up Melissa Ortiz until you see either a picture of me or a dachshund.
I will, Annie Oakley my service dog is a dachshund and she a lot of times just to throw people off I put her picture up as my profile picture and so look for that or feel free to reach out directly to me by email. That is MORTIZ@nationalcenter.org. And if you would like to adopt a dachshund who is misbehaving at the moment I would also be open to that conversation
We will put the links for all of those um Um, and the show notes so that anyone who wants to contact you can look there to, to get that information too.
And one more link is, um, nationalcenter.org/programs/able-americans. And that will take you right to the program page and you should be able to get in touch with me through that. Um, but, and so the one more thing that we’re working on that I’m incredibly excited about as well.
We’re doing some, we got this amazing grant from a foundation here in D. C. that’s has a heart for disability and we are running like a house of fire doing the research and we’re developing an app for iPhones and Androids that once it’s up and running to its full potential, we are going to, you will be able to put in Your location by zip code, your diagnosis, and your need, what specifically you’re looking for.
Whether it’s a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, a new set of crutches, or whatever, or, um, um, respite care. Those are just some examples, and everything within 100 miles will pop up. So that, It’s just exciting what I think we’re going to be able to do with this if we can get it together.
Yeah, that’s, so, um, listeners that may have information that should be on that app, should they send you that information as well?
Yes, please. Yes, please.
So just to your, your regular contact or do you have a form out there?
No, just send it to my regular contact and I will start, um, start. disseminating the information where it needs to go. I joke about this being an airplane in flight, and it, there’s an old military joke about building an airplane in flight, and then there’s also a story that I don’t know how true it is, but it’s such a cool story that I like to tell it, and when the state of Israel was being founded in 1948, and they would, um, over Egyptian and Jordanian tanks.
Everybody carried a blue bucket of paint with them, and they would, when they took over when they would seize a tank, they would just paint a blue, uh, Azure blue star of David on the tank and drive off. And so that’s what I feel like I’m doing. A lot of times is that I am building my army in the middle of a war and I, Able Americans wants to focus on the best policies for helping people with disabilities of all sorts and their families live their best lives.
I want to further that focus by honoring the, the image of God in every human being, whether they have a disability or not, and helping them show. That disability isn’t the result of something that was wrong, but a way for God to be glorified in the way that you live out your purpose. Now, I want to be very clear in saying that National Center is not a religious think tank, but several of us there are people of faith, and I, my, my lead researcher and I, daily discuss people being made in the image of God, and when I get discouraged, he’ll say things to me like, Melissa, 61 million Americans who, with disabilities, who are image bearers of the Most High God are counting on you to get this right.
And so that makes me kind of, you know, take myself in hand and keep going. So because it’s a lot of work and it’s not something that people want to talk about, there’s a survey that was done within the last five years that says that two out of three people surveyed were uncomfortable around someone with a disability.
Two out of three people. And it didn’t matter what the disability was, they were uncomfortable. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I think that that’s one reason we have such a problem with ableism. But that’s another topic for another day. One of the things that I’d like to do through Able Americans, besides creating great policies and creating a resource bank for people, Um, and even creating a legal stable of attorneys that can help when there’s discrimination and malpractice and civil rights violations, things like that.
I, and we want to create a speaker’s bureau, all those things. One of the things that I want to create is a way for people to find jobs, a way for people with disabilities to connect with each other and to understand that the policy matters because they matter as human beings.
So, can you share, um, any success stories or notable achievements of the able, able Americans program? You’ve told us some of what your goals are, but what are, what’s, what, what’s happened already?
Yes, I can. Uh, two things. that I’m really excited about. Um, well, three things. So the first thing is, even before I was officially on National Center’s payroll, uh, we met with Senator Cruz’s office about making sure that Children with disabilities were included in the educational, um, reparations bill that he was putting together post COVID.
And it got done. It got put right in that bill. And that was a direct effort of my and David Ridenour’s work with Senator Cruz’s office, so that was very exciting. Um, another thing is that physician-assisted suicide is becoming quite the thing in the United States. And everybody thinks it’s this great, compassionate thing. And if they would just pay attention to what’s going on in Canada, they would realize how dangerous and slippery slope it is.
Um, Able Americans was part of the coalition that defeated medical aid in dying in Maryland. And, and that just happened. So, they will have to wait two years before they can bring it up again. So that’s, that’s pretty exciting. I’m pretty proud of our efforts on that. And then the last thing is, I am one of the first conservative women who wrote an op ed published above the fold in the weekend edition of USA Today.
And in the print version, not just the online version, but the print version. And that may not sound like a big deal, but it was a really big deal because another conservative woman decided to attack people with disabilities. And I just couldn’t let it stand. I just couldn’t let it go without comment. And I didn’t think that anybody would want to publish it, and they did, and it has created so many opportunities to talk about how people with disabilities aren’t monoliths, liberals aren’t monoliths, and conservatives aren’t monoliths.
Americans aren’t monoliths. That’s why we call ourselves a melting pot, um, and all anybody with a disability wants is to be part of that melting pot, the American melting pot. We have an education process in front of us that needs to happen. That we need to learn to look at individuals as individuals.
Whether they come from the same ethnic background or same nationality background, heritage, than we do. Whether their skin is the same color, whether their bodies work the way their brains work the way our brains work. We need to look at each person as an individual regardless of whatever box that we want to put them in.
And then shake them all out of the box and put them in the melting pot and stir it together.
Perfect. The, um, you mentioned a little bit, because you talked about meeting with, um, Senator Cruz. Um, how does Able Americans, how does the program collaborate with other organizations and government agencies to promote inclusion and support for people with disabilities?
Because we’re so new, we officially got started in this iteration in September. Um, we wanted to do a lot of research first. That’s why I say by, you know, kind of building an airplane in flight or taking over the tanks as we, as we seize them. We are doing the research, but we’re also, any opportunity that I have to talk to anybody on either side of the aisle that cares about disability policy, I take it.
And, um, I am right now setting up meetings with all of the chiefs of staff on the right side of the aisle, on the hill. And there are a lot of them. I’m going to be busy for a long time taking these meetings with anybody that will meet with me. Uh, and then I’m going to go to the left side of the aisle and start with them.
And then I brought from my days as the Commissioner of the Administration on Disability at HHS, I brought a list of contacts in, um, disease-specific and condition-specific organizations. And I am reaching out to those people and letting them know we’re here. One of our roles as policy makers, we, we look at ourselves as being supports to policy makers.
And so one of my roles will be to be, read legislation and see is there anything in it that is harmful to a person with a disability and then raise that and offer a solution. I want to be very careful about not just presenting problems, but having solutions to go with them.
Everything I write, every speech I give, everything I talk about has to have not just a policy problem that it addresses, but the solution to that. And that’s what I’m doing. What I’m finding though, no matter whose office I call, what political persuasion they are, As soon as I start to, or email, as soon as I start to make these appointments, they want me to talk to their health care people.
So part of the education process is explaining that disability is health care. Disability is education. Disability is employment. Disability is transportation. Disability is housing. Disability is, if it affects your everyday life as a non-disabled person, it affects your life as a disabled person. And I had An economist told me he didn’t do disability policy.
I said, wait, wait, wait, you’re always talking about the debt and the entitlement program reform. What do you think that is? And he looked at me and he said, I had never thought about that. I was just looking at the bottom lines on things. I said, that’s disability policy. And if we can get, 61 million Americans who are disabled, 75% of those people are either unemployed or underemployed and they want to work.
Okay. If we can get even half of those people back to work, it will lower our debt to, to gross national product ratio significantly.
What are some of the future developments that you’re, look, developments that you’re looking at? You mentioned the app. What are some of the other programs that you’re looking at or collaborations or anything like that?
The speakers bureau, um, getting maybe even chapters of Able Americans in different states. So that people can form, you know, again, this is policy, but there’s a program through the Developmental Disability Council in each state for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for the most part that’s called Partners in Policymaking, and I would like to develop a partnership like that for parents and adults and children with physical disabilities to teach them how to advocate and to help, help them learn how to be policy advisors.
Yeah, I know we, um, I’ve had a couple of interviews with, um, some younger adults who are beginning to, to speak out. And those are going to be your, your startup group for that, for that, because it’s, it’s our next generation and they’re, they’re ready and willing to go. They just need to know where they’re going with this.
The existing generation, I think, is going to have to get really serious about speaking out against medical aid and dying. Because there’s this idea that if you have a disability that you’re somehow suffering so badly that you should not want to live, and it would be cheaper to help you not live than it would be to treat your symptoms.
That’s a very dangerous slope right there.
It’s extremely dangerous. I wrote an article, I think it was in January, on, for International Holocaust Awareness Day, um, which was the anniversary of them finding, I think, Dachau. I, um, my brain is getting a little fuzzy, so. But anyway, so it’s the, the, the day, International Holocaust Day that’s recognized by the United Nations.
And I wrote an article for the Washington, um, I think it was for the Times, it was either the Times or the Examiner, about the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that, uh, there was this little project called T4, Acton T4, and it was the taking of people with disabilities from their safe environments and putting them in what were the pre-runners for the gas chambers.
And perfecting the killing system so that, The undesirables were killed first and then they came for everybody else.
And it, not acceptable.
You gave us your contact information earlier. How can, other than giving you, um, information of what’s in their area that, that could be included on the app, how can people with disabilities, families, caregivers, how can they get involved with ABLE Americans and its initiatives?
Um, they can get involved all sorts of different ways. We would love to hear your personal stories. Uh, your… The hard things that you’ve run into and how you dealt with them. We’d like to know what you’ve learned that you didn’t know before. That would be a help to somebody else. We would like to develop a speaker’s bureau so that we can hear the different stories of different people.
If you have something that’s working particularly well with the state or local or federal government in your area, we would love to know about it so it can be replicated. Anything like that. And then, I’m, I haven’t, because we are a policy think tank, I don’t know how far into advocacy and that kind of thing we’re going to go, but I have a real heart for connecting people with each other who are walking the same path.
Because sometimes it just helps to be able to look somebody in the eye and hear the words, I know, I see it, I hear it. So that is. That is, um, what they can do to be involved. So, and on a very, from a very, very, very selfish standpoint. If you just want to drop me a note and tell me to keep going, I would appreciate that too.
Yup. Um, follow her on Instagram and on Facebook so you can, can keep in touch with what she is doing. Cause she does a good job of, of leaving little tidbits here and there of where she is and who she’s meeting with and what’s going on. So it’d be a way to, to maybe leave her some notes on the post with that as well.
Melissa, thanks for, for telling us more about this. I think, I think this is a phenomenal program that you started. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s, where it’s going to be in the next few years, um, with it. And if we can get some of our parents that are listening, parents, caregivers, teachers, whoever’s out there.
to start feeding you the resources that they know of. Maybe the app can get out even faster and be available to more sooner. Um, and I could see that being an ongoing updates as you’re getting more once, once it does roll out, continuing to update that. Well, thank you. I appreciate you spending some more time with me on, on this topic. And I look forward to, to the next time we’re able to talk with you.
I loved it. Thank you so much, Tonya.