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On Saturday, December 10th, 2016 the Iowa Democratic Party Disability Caucus held a Virtual Forum for candidates seeking the position of IDP Chair. All eight candidates for the Chair attended. Catherine Crist, Chair of the IDP Disability Caucus, moderated the forum. Technical assistance from Sarah Hind and Holly Christine Brown allowed the Forum to be streamed on Facebook and YouTube. It was the first of its kind for the Iowa Democratic Party, and it never would have happened without the Disability Caucus volunteers stepping up and demanding that access be expanded to everyone.
According to Catherine Crist, “[Increasing access] serves the greater good. Make it accessible for one, make it accessible for all. Think about the buttons on some buildings that open doors whenever pressed. Those assist anyone who needs assistance opening the door. When a button is added to a building that is a benefit for all. Yes, it helps people in a wheelchair gain access, but it also helps people without obvious needs. It helps people that are carrying boxes or pushing a stroller just as much as a person with some sort of physical challenge.”
The same is the case with Maestro Conference, the phone conferencing program used for the Forum call, and StreamText’s CART, communication access real-time translation, service. The Disability Caucus is introducing new technology and procedures into the process of serving on the IDP State Central Committee not only to better serve their membership but all Democrats in Iowa.
Maestro is a conference calling system. It has several features. Organizers can push information and registration for calls directly to Facebook. Attendees can use Skype or their Webphone option to connect directly to a computer or smartphone with Wi-Fi access, neither of which require an app or plug-in. Presenters can show images or PowerPoint presentations to attendees directly through their screens, and even poll the people on the call in real-time. Attendees can ask questions via text to presenters or the call administrator, and the system can even create breakout rooms for people to discuss specific topics in small groups during a call. Best of all, the call admin has nuanced control over who can be heard during the call, which avoids barking dogs, screaming children, or the odd toilet flush from interfering with everyone’s ability to understand what is being said.
Beyond the system being an effective way to increase access to people with mobility issues, Maestro solves a variety of problems. Catherine Crist points out, “Allowing people to participate in any kind of meeting via conference call because they wouldn’t be able to do it without it is important. For the first time, the IDP Chair vote will be allowed to take part via conference call. There are a variety of things we’re doing to increase participation. And it’s not just about technology, it’s about changing your thinking.”
Not just the way we think about people with disabilities, though that is one of the primary goals Ms. Crist identified for the IDPDC.
We want people to know that the Disability Caucus is leading the way in using and adapting to new tech. We have the regular challenges that people face, and then some additional challenges. We’re not a group of people with one disability. We have to keep the needs of people, regardless of their ability, in mind. That might be a person with a physical ailment, but it could also be mental illness, learning disabilities, ADHD, or hearing/visual impairment, for example.
The consideration needed to increase access and allow greater participation helps level the playing field even for people without an obvious disability.
We live in a very large state. It’s great to meet in person, but people can’t always do that. The Disability Caucus has monthly meetings, and without the conference calls and CART, we wouldn’t be able to do that. It’s not just a matter of mobility or people with specific needs. It’s a burden on a lot of people, a burden on their time and a burden on their bank account, to have to travel to Des Moines for a meeting every month. We need to stay in contact with each other, and using technology helps almost everyone do that.
It also lowers the cost of entry for many people that want to participate but don’t have the time or money to be as involved as they might like. The Democratic Party has, in the last three decades, increasingly become the party of the top 10%, and resources like Maestro help bring access to everyone. They also let us do the good work we want to do from the comfort of our pajamas and slippers, which should appeal to everyone during an Iowa winter.
StreamText’s CART Service
The Iowa Democratic Party Executive Director Ben Foecke assisted the IDPDC in setting up services to allow Iowa Democrats with disabilities greater access to the Chair Candidate’s Forum using StreamText’s service. It allows anyone to click on a link to a real-time transcription of the conference call. The interface can be personalized in a variety of ways to be service the person using it.
As with Maestro, the CART service has value for everyone in the Iowa Democratic Party. Thanks to efforts by Catherine Crist and the other volunteers of the Disability Caucus, meetings of the State Central Committee and other organizations inside the IDP that request CART service will expand access for people with specific needs, and create a system whereby these meetings and calls have a transcript of whatever transpires. This leads to increased transparency and accountability for everyone in leadership in the IDP, something many Democrats are clamoring to see.
Leading the Way
“Never before has there been an IDP Chair forum held virtually and using CART. We are experimenting with what works and what doesn’t work in order to build on the experience and improve accessibility. When we make things accessible for one, we make things accessible for all. We want to educate and bring about awareness to the activists and party. We want a seat at the decision-making table, and without it we can’t make certain our voices are heard. We shouldn’t be looked at for what we can’t do, but for what we can do. Without the work of the [Disability] Caucus none of these technological solutions would be getting used, in this manner. We’re an entirely volunteer staff, and we’re getting things done.
This year we made sure that folks had the information they needed so they could get out and vote. We had free paratransit in some counties, thanks in part to grants from IDACTION, curbside voting, and satellite caucuses. This year has been the most accessible caucus to convention process ever. Does that mean we don’t have a long way to go? No. But it does mean we’ve come a long way. We recognize our triumphs as well as our challenges.
The [Americans with Disabilities Act] was passed 26 years ago. We really need to be further along than we are. About 20% of Americans identify as having some sort of disability, that makes us the largest minority in the country. And it’s not okay to continue the status quo. It’s not okay to continue to stand on the outside unable to get on the inside. Some things are going to cost money, there’s no doubt about it. That’s the cost of expanding the party. New ways of thinking bring advantage to everyone in the party. It’s important that the Disability Caucus leads the way, and that it leads to more transparency and a benefit to the whole.”
So many acronyms…
IDP: Iowa Democratic Party
IDPDC: Iowa Democratic Party Disability Caucus
(IDP) SCC: State Central Committee
Official website of the Iowa Democratic Party Disability Caucus
Official Facebook Group of the Iowa Democratic Party Disability Caucus