Lawmakers Start Out Session Strong With ‘Unique Abilities’ Bills

Jan 15, 2016

This week saw a homerun for disability rights in the Florida Capitol. There are two bills heading to the Governor’s desk.

Senate President Andy Gardiner
Credit http://www.politico.com/story/2015/06/gardiner-readies-senate-gop-for-campaign-season-119299 / politico.com

Proponents say the bills form a pathway from cradle to career for Floridians with disabilities. Spanning the time from early childhood education to college, financial literacy and employment, the bills are top priorities for Senate President Andy Gardiner. But Gardiner says the real credit goes to his wife Camille.

“I’d love to sit here and say I sit around and come up with these great ideas. But as you guys know, there is one person that does. And I cannot allow this bill to leave this Senate without recognizing Camille,” he said.

The Senate kicked off the week with plans to expand educational options for people with disabilities. Sponsored by Destin Republican Senator Don Gaetz, one bill would pave the way to higher education. Gardiner says the provision would be life-changing for people like Claire, a young woman with Downs Syndrome who volunteered in his office.

“Claire was interviewed by the Florida Channel last year, and she made a comment that I think that this bill will maybe help her get there. She said I just want to get to college. And President Gaetz, your bill will provide that path, that cradle to career,” he said.

The education bill would also codify and expand the personal learning scholarship accounts. These funds can go towards tuition, teaching materials and therapy. In a surprise move, Senator Don Gaetz renamed the program after President Gardiner and his family.

“I would be honored to be associated with this, as we all should. We do a lot of things in Tallahassee that you find out in a mail piece later that maybe you regret. But I can tell you, each of us, Republican, Democrat, things like this is why you come up here,” he said.

In a rare display of emotion and compassion, senator after senator rose to congratulate Gardiner. Senator Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood was not the only lawmaker to acknowledge Gardiner’s personal commitment to the issue.

“So I want to thank you for your leadership, for bringing Florida forward in this area, being a pioneer in the state for these kids, these children who have special needs,” she said.

The Senate passed another bill Friday that would pave the way towards fiscal independence for people with disabilities. A three part bill, the plans would provide financial literacy training, boost employment and recognize businesses that employ people with disabilities. Senator Jeremy Ring of Margate says the education and financial provisions go hand in hand.

“What we did the other day was mission critically important. It was about giving children with developmental challenges and disabilities educational opportunities. But those educational opportunities have very little meaning if the opportunity for them to compete in an adult world doesn’t exist,” he said.

But Ring is confident there is room for people with unique abilities to compete, and even thrive.

“You can create opportunities for individuals with unique abilities, special needs, challenges and they can be very, very successful. You just have to find the right opportunities for them that matches their strengths,” he said.

Passing these bills in the first week of Session bodes well for a legislature trying to get off on the right foot. But for Senate President Andy Gardiner, it’s a personal triumph as well. The bills will now head to the Governor’s desk.