Director of Governor’s Workplace of Disabilities, Bambi Polotzola, Speaks With Large Straightforward About The Significance of Incapacity Rights
Bambi Polotzola is a lifelong teacher, community organizer, lover of people, activist on multiple fronts, and the mother of a young adult with autism. As the director of the Governor’s Disabilities Office, she works every day to ensure that the thousands of Louisiana citizens who have a disability receive the opportunities and services they deserve.
We met with Bambi to discuss the status of disability rights in Louisiana.
DC: Your Twitter handle says that you are a community organizer, a lover of people, and an activist on multiple fronts. What led you on this path in your background? Have you always been a teacher at heart?
BP: I’ve always loved children, but I didn’t choose an education until I realized that educators weren’t trained or supported enough to raise my autistic son. I’ve always believed that you can show people better than you can tell them, so I decided 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 did you do to get such awards?
BP: That’s a very nice description. Governor Edwards and I have known each other for over a decade when he was a state representative, and I spoke out against the disastrous laws and policies during the Jindal administration that were very harmful to the people of our state. I think we gained mutual respect during this time. He was the same consistent leader who remained true to his values during his tenure as governor.
DC: Describe your personal commitment to people with disabilities.
BP: I have a son with autism, so it is for me personally to make sure that people with disabilities have every opportunity. I understand that it is in his best interest to live in a world where not only he has opportunities, but everyone has access to opportunities.
DC: How did people and families with disabilities fight during the pandemic?
BP: People with disabilities and their families struggled in the same way as people without disabilities, but as in most cases, people with disabilities are exponentially more affected. Serious illness and death were more common among people with disabilities. Support systems for people with disabilities depend heavily on interactions with people who provide support. The pandemic created a huge 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 for people with disabilities?
BP: Post-secondary education is important for people with disabilities for the same reason as it is for people without disabilities. This should lead to improved knowledge and skills that lead to more job opportunities. It is very exciting that South Louisiana, in partnership with the LSU Human Development Center and Baton Rouge Community College, has multiple higher education institutions with certified programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Nicholls, Southeastern, UL Lafayette, Delgado. There are some colleges in central and northern Louisiana taking the first steps to start programs.
DC: Are the group houses that house young adults doing enough to maximize their clients’ potential?
BP: I believe in involving the community in every aspect of life, including where people live. In group homes, I suspect, as with any other ministry – there are some who are better than others. Our focus should be on making sure people get what they need to maximize their potential.
DC: How successful are you in getting more employers to hire people with disabilities?
BP: My efforts to find employment for people with disabilities have centered on policies and practices. https://gov.louisiana.gov/page/disability-employment-initiative
DC: How can you help ensure that more people with disabilities get on the electoral roll and in the voting booth?
BP: We need to make sure that voting information is presented in a way that people can understand, including the accommodations available. Voter registration must be done in an accessible manner that ensures privacy. Information on available accommodation must be provided on election websites, ballot packs sent by post, and when general election information is distributed. Elective websites must be compatible with all major assistive technologies. Training election commissioners specifically in relation to accessibility would help to provide appropriate and respectful accommodation to people with disabilities. The burden of education should not fall on the disabled. Voter suppression laws disproportionately affect people with disabilities.
DC: Briefly describe the legislation Governor Edwards advocated that benefits people with disabilities.
BP: Some specific points are:
Under the leadership of Governor Edwards, our budget has stabilized and we have adequately funded exemptions for people with developmental disabilities. Starting this year, our state will have a TEFRA-like program that will give children with developmental disabilities access to Medicaid despite their parents’ income.
The big picture is that people with disabilities are members of every other group in our society. Any legislation that helps marginalized groups helps people with disabilities. People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by problems that affect us all negatively. However, when people with disabilities are members of other marginalized groups, the effects are exacerbated. This is why leadership that understands and addresses the struggles of all people is so important to the disabled community.
DC: Who is your favorite Legislative hero right now?
BP: There are a lot of current lawmakers who are very supportive of disability issues, but for me to be able to give someone heroic status, they have to show an understanding over the years of the problems that all marginalized groups face, not just people with disabilities. The real heroes see our connectivity and then act to make improvements. People like ex-Representative Patricia Smith and Congressman-elect Troy Carter advocated legislation for poor working, LGBTQ disabled communities who were previously incarcerated, to name a few.
DC: Why is the GOLD Awards and Inclusive Arts Contest worth it?
BP: The GOLD Awards are an annual event honoring leaders in the disability community across the state. It is an opportunity to reflect on the good work and progress made in our state and celebrate the people who make these things possible.
The Inclusive Arts Contest is an opportunity to celebrate inclusion through art. It’s a way to involve the community in a way that it usually doesn’t.
DC: Why are waivers important?
BP: Medicaid Waiver Services provide the services a person with a disability needs to live in their home and be active in their community. In the past, people with disabilities were institutionalized, but we have made significant strides in providing the support and services families need to care for their children at home and adults who were born with disabilities or who acquired their disability at a young age have made possible an independent life with support within their own four walls.
DC: In 2018 you used Survey Monkey to better understand your constituents’ problems. Do you intend to start another survey in 2021?
BP: We often have surveys to collect information and input on various topics.
DC: Do group homes have the legal right to conduct stimulus controls on residents who are not counties of the state?
BP: I asked an attorney for my staff to investigate. The rules for paying pandemic stimuli are unique and surprising. However, it seems to me that the individual incentive should not be used for general group home business purposes. As a company, the group house should be considered for PPP, EIDL or SBA stimulus aid programs.
DC: You donated a kidney to Ali Hooks, your best friend’s daughter. Why is it important to be an organ donor?
BP: Donating my kidney is one of the most powerful and simple things I have ever done. It didn’t affect me physically, but it saved her life. I told her that the only thing I want her to do is live her life to the fullest, whichever way she chooses. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to be an organ donor to do so.
DC: You were part of the 2019 Emerge Class. What did this training mean for you?
BP: I really enjoyed the experience and became part of a sisterhood. I am extremely proud of my emerge sisters who were elected and those who ran unsuccessfully. You all represented the organization well. Although I haven’t run for office since training, I helped in several campaigns and used what I learned in Emerge.
DC: You ran unsuccessfully for the school board in St. Landry Parish. What did you learn from this 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 is not for the faint of heart. I ran in 2013 and when I think back, I realize how much I didn’t know about campaigns back then.
DC: Governor Edwards will be stepping down in a few years. What are your plans for the future?
BP: I want to run an organization that works to improve the lives of historically marginalized groups of people. I want to use my experiences to drive the work in a positive direction. I have a large, diverse network of incredible people across the state who I’ve worked with on a wide variety of topics. I’m really looking forward to thinking about how we can work together to improve our state.