Beverly Black

As a teenager, Beverly Black lived at the Denton State School — which she said she hated so much that she once escaped on a horse. Black spoke during “Unheard,” a virtual candlelight vigil on Saturday, hosted by the Free Our People Project, a collaborative of North Texas disability rights advocates, organizations and community leaders.

North Texas disability rights advocates called for greater autonomy for people with disabilities Saturday evening during a virtual candlelight vigil. The event, titled “Unheard,” also honored the 445 people currently institutionalized at the Denton State Supported Living Center.

Val Vera, a disability justice activist, said people with disabilities need equal rights now more than ever. While the coronavirus pandemic has amplified the voices of some — such as health care workers, renters and small-business owners — people with disabilities remain largely overlooked.

“Now, let’s be clear,” Vera said. “The pandemic did not cause institutional oppression: It simply revealed it.”

The vigil, held via videoconference, was hosted by the Free Our People Project, a collaborative of North Texas disability rights advocates, organizations and community leaders.

In addition to increased state funding toward community-supported living, the evening’s speakers called for greater awareness for disability rights. Institutions like the Denton State Supported Living Center perpetuate oppression and discrimination, Vera said.

The center, previously called the Denton State School, has come under fire recently for its handling of residents and staff during the coronavirus pandemic. A total of 55 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Denton County Public Health. One of those residents, a man in his 60s, died earlier this month. Sixty-seven staff members have tested positive.

Self-advocate Beverly Black lived at Denton’s state school when she was a teenager. She said she yearned for more independence during her time there and was not allowed to take showers on her own.

Black said she hated the institution so much that she once escaped on a horse, riding back to her family’s farm in Cleburne. She was then readmitted to the institution against her will.

Now in her 60s, Black lives in her own home with her husband, Wayne. She said she would hate it if she were ever forced to return to the state school.

“No way!” Black said. “I enjoy my freedom.”

Addressing the vigil’s 32 participants, Denton City Council member Deb Armintor said that, when appropriate, people with disabilities are entitled to live within the community. Involuntary institutionalization of certain citizens could be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, she added.

Armintor said she wishes she could do more to help those who live in institutions like the state living center and the county jail.

“It is impossible to represent people when you can’t see them and you can’t hear them,” she said. “We need to do what we can as a city to support those activists who are pushing for change at the state level.”

The state government offers Medicaid waiver services so that Texans with disabilities can receive community-based living services, according to disabilities resource website Navigate Life Texas. Before these waivers, people only had the option of living in hospitals, institutions and nursing homes.

But to receive these autonomy-enhancing services, one must first sign up on a so-called waiver interest list. Some people with disabilities have been waiting for more than 11 years on such lists, according to disability rights website Texas Medicaid Waiver. Currently, there are 156,161 Texans on the list.

Cindi Paschall, co-chair of the Free Our People Project, said these impossible wait times are another example of discrimination against people with disabilities. Meanwhile, those who live in institutions remain largely invisible to the public.

“We simply can’t allow this to continue,” Paschall said. “We must take steps to create change to give our disabled sisters and brothers a chance to be heard.”

To close the evening, the vigil’s hosts led a 4-minute, 45-second period of silence in honor of the 445 residents at the Denton State Supported Living Center. Virtual attendees were encouraged to light a candle.

After the silence, disability rights advocate Anne Henshaw closed with a demand for equality.

“I believe all individuals with disabilities, regardless of service and support needs, should be an equal, valued and included member of their community,” she said. “That means a home integrated within the community, not segregated behind a locked gate — unseen and unheard.”

SIMONE CARTER can be reached via Twitter at @simcarttweets.

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