Director of Governor’s Office of Disabilities, Bambi Polotzola, Speaks With Big Easy About The Importance of Disability Rights

Photo Courtesy of Bambi Polotzola
Bambi Polotzola is a life-long teacher, a community organizer, lover of people, activist on several fronts and the mother of a young adult with autism. As Director of the Governor’s Office of Disabilities, she fights every day to ensure that the thousands of Louisiana citizens who have a disability get the opportunities and services they deserve.

We caught up with Bambi to discuss the status of disability rights in Louisiana.

DC: Your Twitter handle says you are a community organizer, lover of people and activist on several fronts. What in your background led you down that path? Have you always been a teacher at heart? 

BP: I’ve always loved children but I didn’t decide to go into education until I realized that educators weren’t adequately trained nor supported to educate my son who has autism. I’ve always believed that you can show people better than you can tell them so I decided I was going to show how students with autism can learn and thrive and that’s what I did as a teacher.

DC: Governor Edwards calls you hardworking, caring and selfless. What have you done to earn such accolades?

BP: That is a very kind description. Governor Edwards and I have known one another for over a decade when he was a state representative and I was advocating against the disastrous laws and policies during the Jindal administration that were very harmful to the people of our state. During that time I believe we gained mutual respect for one another. He has been that same consistent leader, true to his values, throughout his tenure as Governor.

DC: Describe your personal commitment to people with disabilities.

BP: I have a son with autism so ensuring that people with disabilities have every opportunity is personal to me. I understand that it’s in his best interest to live in a world where not only he has opportunities but everyone has access to opportunities.  

DC: How have individuals and families with disabilities struggled during the Pandemic?

BP: People with disabilities and their families struggled in the same ways that people without disabilities struggled but as in most things people with disabilities are exponentially more negatively affected. Severe sickness and deaths were more prevalent for people with disabilities. The support systems for people with disabilities is heavily dependent on interactions with people who provide support. The pandemic caused a tremendous barrier to personal support.  

DC: What percentage of the disabled community has been vaccinated?  

BP: Less than 50%

DC: Why is post-secondary education important to people with disabilities?

BP: Post-secondary education is important to people with disabilities for the same reason it’s important to people without disabilities. It should lead to improved knowledge and skills that lead to more employment opportunities. It is very exciting that South Louisiana has multiple higher education institutions with certified programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Nicholls, Southeastern, UL Lafayette, Delgado in partnership with LSU Human Development Center, and Baton Rouge Community College. There are a few colleges in central and north Louisiana taking initial steps to start programs.

DC: Do the group homes that house young adults do enough to maximize their clients’ potential? 

BP: I believe in community inclusion in every aspect of life including where people live. I suspect with group homes like any other service- there are some better than others. Our focus should be in ensuring that people are provided with what they need to maximize their potential.

DC: How successful are you in getting more employers to hire people with disabilities?

BP: My efforts in employment for people with disabilities has centered on policy and practices. 

DC: How can you help get more people with disabilities on the voter rolls and in the voting booth?

BP: We need to ensure that information about voting is presented in a way that people can understand, including available accommodations. Voter registration needs to be provided in an accessible manner that allows for privacy. Information on available accommodations need to be shared on election websites, mailed ballot packages, and in the distribution of general election information. Election websites need to be compatible with all commonly-used assistive technology. Training of election commissioners specifically on accessibility would assist in providing predetermined accommodations to individuals with disabilities in an appropriate and respectful manner. The burden of education should not fall on the individual with a disability. Voter suppression laws disproportionately affect people with disabilities.

DC: Briefly describe legislation that Governor Edwards has championed that benefit people with disabilities.

BP: A couple of specific items are:  

Through Governor Edwards’ leadership our budget has been stabilized and we have adequately funded waivers for people with developmental disabilities. Our state will have a TEFRA-like program beginning this year, which will provide access to Medicaid for children with developmental disabilities despite parental income.  

The bigger picture is that people with disabilities are a members of every other group within our society. Any legislation that helps marginalized groups helps people with disabilities. People with disabilities are disproportionately negatively affected by issues that negatively affect us all but when people with disabilities are members of other marginalized groups the impact is compounded. That’s why leadership that understands and addresses the struggles of all people is so important to the disability community.  

DC: Who is currently your favorite legislative hero? 

BP: There are many current legislators who are very supportive of disability issues but for me to give someone heroic status they have to demonstrate over several years understanding of the issues faced by all marginalized groups, not just people with disabilities. The real heroes see our interconnectedness and then act to make improvements. People like former Representative Patricia Smith and Congressman-elect Troy Carter championed legislation for working poor, LGBTQ, disability community, formerly incarcerated, to name a few.  

DC: Why is the value of the GOLD Awards and Inclusive Arts Contest?

BP: The GOLD Awards is an annual event that recognizes leaders in the disability community across the state. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the good work and progress that occurs within our state and celebrate the people who make those things happen.

The Inclusive Arts Contest is an opportunity to celebrate inclusion through art. It’s a way to engage the community in a way in which it isn’t usually.  

DC: Why are waiver services important?

BP: Medicaid waiver services provide the services necessary for a person with a disability to live in their home and active in their community.  Historically people with disabilities were institutionalized but we have made substantial progress in providing the supports and services necessary for families to care for their children at home as well as allow for adults who were born with disabilities or acquired their disability at a young age to live independently with supports in their own homes. 

DC: In 2018 you used Survey Monkey to better understand issues your constituents face. Do you intend to launch another survey in 2021?

BP: We frequently have surveys to gather information and input on different issues.

DC: Do group homes have the legal right to keep the stimulus checks of residents who are not wards of the state?

BP: I’ve asked an attorney on my staff to research that. Rules related to pandemic stimulus payments are unique and surprising. However, it would seem to me that an individual’s stimulus shouldn’t be used for general business purposes of a group home. As a business the group home should be eligible for PPP, EIDL, or SBA stimulus relief programs. 

DC: You donated a kidney to Ali Hooks, your best friend’s daughter. Why is being an organ donor important?

BP: Donating my kidney is one of the most impactful and one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. It has had no effect on me physically but it saved her life. I told her that the only thing I want from her is to live her life to the fullest in whatever way she chooses. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to be an organ donor to do so.  

DC: You were part of Emerge’s 2019 class. What did that training mean to you?

BP: I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and becoming a part of a sisterhood. I’m exceedingly proud of my Emerge sisters who have been elected to office and those who have run unsuccessfully. They all have represented the organization well. Even though I haven’t run for office since the training, I have helped in several campaigns and utilized what I learned in Emerge.

DC: You ran unsuccessfully for School Board in St. Landry Parish. What did you learn from that race?

BP: I learned that I really enjoyed meeting and talking to people in my community. I had so much energy during the campaign but when it was over I was exhausted. Running for office isn’t for the faint of heart. I ran in 2013 and thinking back I realize how much I didn’t know about campaigning at the time.  

DC: Governor Edwards will be leaving office in a few years. What are your plans for the future?

BP: I would like to lead an organization working to improve the lives of historically marginalized groups of people. I want to utilize my experiences to propel the work in a positive direction. I have a large diverse network of incredible people across the state who I have worked with on a variety of issues.  I get really excited about thinking of all the ways we can work together to make our state better. 

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