For two decades, Ed Paquin has worked to protect Vermonters with disabilities from abuse, neglect, and violations of their rights. A former State House Representative and former President of the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights, he will retire on Friday, May 7th as Executive Director of Disability Rights Vermont.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke to Ed Paquin to reflect on his work for and with Vermonters with disabilities. Your conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: For people who may not be familiar with your job, I wonder if you can tell us about how you first stood up for the rights of Vermonters with disabilities.
Ed Paquin: Well, I got elected to the legislature in the 1990 election, and I have to give some credit to the Vermont Center for Independent Living because when they saw the wheelchair man in law they came and said, “Okay, he probably will be the one championing some of our accounts. “
And so I worked closely with them, and a group of people with developmental disabilities from the northeastern Kingdom who were involved in a self-determination project asked to meet me. It was just such a hopeful, wonderful thing for someone my age who grew up in a generation when people like that got on a different bus in Shaftsbury and went to a different school.
“My community, the Vermont small town community, really gathered around me and my family and gave us tremendous support. And between family, friends, and even strangers in my own community, I wasn’t focusing on what happened and what I need to do to live a life afterwards? “- Ed Paquin
Ed, do you mind if I ask about your own disability? How long have you been living with it and how has it changed your life and obviously it has changed it a lot?
It changed it a lot. I was injured in 1988 when I came into contact with a high voltage cable. I stopped to see if anyone was hurt. It did a lot of damage, but it also damaged the nerves around the upper part of my vertebrae and impaired control of my nerves in my legs. I can use my feet and legs to some extent, but I’ve been using a wheelchair for the most part since 1988.
But I have been absolutely blessed in many ways. My church, the Vermont small town church, which really gathered around me and my family, has given us tremendous support. And between family, friends, and even strangers in my own community, I didn’t focus on what happened, but what do I have to do to have a life after that? The idea of working with a lot of people really appealed to me.
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When you look back on your career, what do you think have been some of the greatest achievements for Vermonters with disabilities over the years you’ve worked with DRVT?
I think we had a lot of influence. I have to use “we” instead of “I” because all I could have come from working with an incredible group of people.
When I was a legislator, we expanded coverage for many, many Vermonters with programs like the Vermont Health Access Plan, which covered Medicaid for low-income people who had no children. We have worked on topics like building a system for people with developmental disabilities, downsizing and replacing Vermont State Hospital over the years, and shifting the balance in our long-term care to our Choices For Care program, which includes home care equates to the right to home care. And had some impact on the correction department’s services for people with mental health problems. We looked at the use of force in the Woodside facility. And I’m telling you, it’s really a lesson, when you do this work, you see it on a really personal level.
More from VPR: Court Orders Woodside Juvenile Facility to Change Seclusion and Restraint Policy [August 2019]
There are other areas that I am curious about, such as voting rights. Have you found that this is what your work has focused on at all over the past 18, 20 years?
Absolutely. We have done a lot of work evaluating the accessibility of polling stations across the state. We worked closely with the Secretary of State to include the voice of people with disabilities in their planning for systems. What options are there to vote by email? We are right now part of a large group who are positive about the electoral reform that is currently going on in Vermont legislation.
“We have a beautifully designed system of services that we just haven’t kept at the level they need.” – Ed Paquin
What are some of the future challenges for Vermont’s disability community that may affect you as you prepare to step down from leadership roles?
Oh boy. There are many of them. One thing that comes to my mind is that there is a very small program called a participant-driven care program for people with severe physical disabilities to help them meet their physical needs so that these people work and on Can participate in community events. And it’s more flexible than Medicaid. You can hire a family member to help you with your physical needs. And it’s a generally funded program, so you don’t have to go into poverty to get this service. The program has been frozen for about four years. It really has to open up. We have a wonderfully designed system of services that we just haven’t kept at the level they need.
More from VPR: Man dependent on Vermont’s support program talks about its possible elimination [March 2018]
Well, not to get to the point, Eq Paquin, but what’s next for you? What is the next chapter of your life like?
Well, I can get up a little later some mornings than in the past. But I look forward to getting in touch with my family in California. I’m looking forward to probably playing a little more music than in the past few years. You know, I used to be a builder and carpenter, and I have some projects planned that will keep me quite busy in my house.
I have been associated with the Center for Independent Living for many years and plan to continue as a board member. So I think I’ll keep my hands in a couple of different ways, Mitch.
Do you have any questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or Tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.
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