Rhode Island Senate must take a stand against hatred

Published in RINewsToday on May 31, 2021

“In recent days, we have seen that no community is immune. We must all stand together to silence these terrible and terrifying echoes of the worst chapters in world history, and pledge to give hate no safe harbor.” — Statement of President Joe Biden on the rise of antisemitic attacks, May 28, 2021

Over two decades ago, “Never Again” was on the mind of the Rhode Island General Assembly. Lawmakers in both chambers geared up to fight antisemitism by passing the companion legislative proposals, “Genocide and Human Rights Education Act,” sending the bill Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Almond for his signature.  The enacted legislation required the Rhode Island Department of Education to “develop curricular material on genocide and human rights issues and guidelines for the teaching of that material. 

In 2011, Rhode Island lawmakers passed the “Genocide Education in Secondary Schools Act which called for genocide curriculum materials being available, that put a spotlight on the Holocaust, Armenian, Cambodia, and Darfur.  Six years later, enacted legislation would require that the Holocaust and genocide be taught in the state’s public middle and high schools. 

House bill raises awareness of the Holocaust and Genocide

Just weeks ago, 73 Rhode Island House lawmakers (2 choosing not to vote) passed H-5650, a legislative proposal sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-District 4, Providence) to create a Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission to raise awareness of the Holocaust and Genocide. The legislation formalizes a commission to implement a 2016 law introduced by now House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-District 63, East Providence) and Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-District 3, Providence) to require public middle and high schools to teach students about Genocide and the Holocaust.  

“So many Rhode Islanders’ families are from communities that have been impacted by Genocides. Listening to each other’s stories and learning about those diverse histories will help us see the humanity in one another and build stronger communities. This bill will establish a commission to provide support to our educators and raise awareness of genocides that have affected Rhode Islanders and have shaped our communities’ histories,” said Kislak.  

Under Kislak’s bill, the Holocaust and Genocide Education Commission will gather and disseminate Holocaust and genocide information, work with the Department of Education to update and promote statewide Holocaust and genocide education programs and promote public awareness of issues relating to Holocaust and genocide education.

As hate crimes have been rising in our own country over the last few years, it’s particularly important that students are taught about the catastrophic atrocities that have been committed when the seeds of hate are planted,” said Kazarian, who is cosponsoring this bill. All eight of the East Providence lawmaker’s great-grandparents are survivors of the Armenian genocide. “My family’s own history involving the Armenian genocide has shown me that these events in history should never be forgotten. It is important that our children recognize and understand how such terrible events can occur in society, and more importantly, how to stop them from happening,” she says.

Rep. Nathan W. Biah Sr. (D-Dist. 3, Providence), who fled Liberia in 1991 at age 20 to escape a war in which genocide occurred, is also a cosponsor.

“I have experienced the horrors of genocide firsthand. It’s a very tragic fact that genocide continues around the world today. Our students are citizens of the world and need to understand the impacts of genocide on their brothers and sisters wherever it occurs,” said Biah.

According to Marty Cooper, Chair of the Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Coalition, Rhode Island was one of the first states in the nation to require Holocaust and genocide education in its schools. “It is now in a position to be one of the first states to establish a formal commission to oversee Holocaust and genocide education as well as establish a Holocaust and genocide awareness month,” he says. 

“The establishment of a formal Rhode Island Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education will ensure accountability and credibility. It will also establish a mechanism to disseminate information and material to schools and educators in regard to Holocaust and genocide issues. Equally important is the ability to monitor and assist in enforcing school compliance on the issue of Holocaust and genocide studies with students,” says Cooper.

“More importantly, a commission will stimulate much needed dialogue and discussion to address the issue of genocide. What atrocities, for instance, should be studied as a genocide?” adds Cooper. 

“After World War II, a strong mantra of “Never Again” came about in hopes of ending atrocities that left millions dead and misplaced because of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, atrocities still take place. We need more than the words “Never Again” to help end this madness. Education is significant element to hopefully bring an end to such hate, bullying and racism,” states Cooper. “Then “Never Again” can become a reality.”

S-840 Sub A held for further study 

As the 2021 General Assembly’s legislation session conclusion comes closer, lawmakers are considering a flurry of bills. While the House chamber has passed its measure, the Senate Education Committee recently recommended that S-840 Sub A, Godin’s companion measure, co-sponsored by Senators Joshua Miller (D-District 28, Providence/Cranston), Hanna Gallo (D-District 27, Cranston), Thomas Paolino (R- District 17, Lincoln, North Providence, and North Smithfield) and Meghan Kallman (D-District 15, Pawtucket) be held for further study.  Often times, this may be the polite way to kill this measure.  Closed door “horse-trading” between House and Senate leadership may resurrect the legislative proposal.  

“I look forward to the bill coming out of the senate education committee and coming up for a favorable vote,” said Cooper

According to a recently released Pew Center survey, nine out of ten American Jews say there is at least “some antisemitism in the U.S.,” and that 75 percent believe there is more antisemitism in the U.S. than there was five years ago. The survey also found that more than half of Jews surveyed say they personally feel less safe as a Jewish person in the U.S. than they did just five years ago.

The Pew survey findings are in line with a recent survey of Jewish American experiences with antisemitism fielded by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) earlier this year, says Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO and National Director. “The ADL survey found that well over half of Jewish Americans have either experienced or directly witnessed some form of antisemitic incident in the last five years, with 63 percent of respondents having either experienced or heard antisemitic comments, slurs or threats targeting others, an increase from 54 percent a year earlier,” he says.

“ADL is working closely with members of Congress to ensure that there is more funding for bolstering community security, training law enforcement in identifying and responding to hate crimes, and has partnered with community organizations, such as SCN, working to protect Jewish institutions.”

“We hope that this [Pew] report serves as a wake-up call to leaders across the country and on both sides of the aisle that antisemitism is still a harsh reality today and so we must continue to fight this ancient hatred through education, advocacy, enhanced security and greater awareness of the problem. ADL remains firmly and fully committed to rooting out antisemitism and hatred in all forms.”

Senate leaders must follow ADL to “root out antisemitism and hatred in all forms” in the Ocean State. One way is to pass S-840 Sub A.

One Year Later – Two Surveys Examine Impact of COVID-19

Published in RINewsToday on May24, 2021

Over the year the raging pandemic has impacted on the physical and mental health of Americans. With daily COVID case counts now the lowest since last year and hospitals seeing less coronavirus hospitalizations, most states, including Rhode Island, are now opening up.

According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) latest Stress in AmericaTM poll (findings released on March 11, 2021), the nation’s health crisis is far from over. Just one year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, many adults report increased negative behaviors, such as undesired changes to their weight and increased drinking, that may be related to their inability to cope with prolonged stress.

APA’s survey of U.S. adults, conducted in late February 2021 by The Harris Poll, shows that a majority of adults (61 percent) experienced undesired weight changes—weight gain or loss—since the pandemic started, with 42 percent reporting they gained more weight than they intended. Of these individuals, they gained an average of 29 pounds (the median amount gained was 15 pounds) and 10 percent stated they gained more than 50 pounds, noted the poll’s findings.

Gaining Weight Bad for Your Health

Weight changes come with significant health risks, including higher vulnerability to serious illness from COVID-19.  According to the National Institute of Health, people who gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing Type II diabetes mellitus and coronary heart disease, and people who gain more than 24 pounds are at higher risk of developing ischemic stroke. 

For the 18 percent of Americans who said they lost more weight than they wanted to, the average amount of weight lost was 26 pounds (median amount lost was 12 pounds). Adult respondents also reported unwanted changes in sleep patterns and increased alcohol consumption. Two in 3 (67 percent) said they have been sleeping more or less than desired since the pandemic started. Nearly 1 in 4 adults (or 23 percent) reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress.

“We’ve been concerned throughout this pandemic about the level of prolonged stress, exacerbated by the grief, trauma and isolation that Americans are experiencing. This survey reveals a secondary crisis that is likely to have persistent, serious mental and physical health consequences for years to come,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr, PhD, APA’s chief executive officer, in a March 21st statement announcing the results of the study’s findings. 

Evans calls on health and policy leaders to come together quickly to provide additional behavioral health supports as part of any national recovery plan.

The researchers found that the pandemic took a particularly heavy toll on parents of children under 18-years old. While slightly more than 3 in 10 adults (31 percent) reported their mental health has worsened compared with before the pandemic, nearly half of mothers who still have children home for remote learning (47 percent) say that their mental health has worsened; 30 percent of the fathers who still have children home said the same. 

APA’s study also found that parents were more likely than those without children to have received treatment from a mental health professional (32 percent vs. 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the coronavirus pandemic began (24 percent vs. 9 percent). More than half of fathers (55 percent) reported gaining weight, and nearly half (48 percent) said they are drinking more alcohol to cope with stress.

As to essential workers, (either persons working in health care or law enforcement), the majority said that they relied on a lot of unhealthy habits to get through the year-long pandemic. Nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent said their mental health has worsened, while 3 in 4 (75 percent) said they could have used more emotional support than they received since the pandemic began. Essential workers were more than twice as likely as adults who were not essential workers to have received treatment from a mental health professional (34 percent vs. 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the coronavirus pandemic started (25 percent vs. 9 percent).

Furthermore, people of color noted that unintended physical changes occurred during the pandemic. Hispanic adults were most likely to report undesired changes to sleep (78 percent Hispanic vs. 76 percent Black, 63 percent white and 61 percent Asian), physical activity levels (87 percent Hispanic vs. 84 percent Black, 81 percent Asian and 79 percent white) and weight (71 percent Hispanic vs. 64 percent Black, 58 percent white and 54 percent Asian) since the beginning of the pandemic.

Black Americans were most likely to report feelings of concern about the future, say the researchers, noting that more than half said they do not feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic (54 percent Black vs. 48 percent Hispanic, 45 percent Asian and 44 percent white).  They also feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends (57 percent Black vs. 51 percent Asian, 50 percent Hispanic and 47 percent white).

“It’s clear that the pandemic is continuing to have a disproportionate effect on certain groups,” said APA President Jennifer Kelly, PhD. “We must do more to support communities of color, essential workers and parents as they continue to cope with the demands of the pandemic and start to show the physical consequences of prolonged stress,” says Kelly.

COVID-19’s Impact on Seniors

A newly released AARP study, released on May 10, 2021, has found that more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, most adults age 50 and older say that it has had a negative impact on their mental health. Researchers found that seven in 10 older adults reported an increase in sadness or depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly 8 in 10 said they had increased concern about the future, worry or anxiety. Half of adults 50 and older reported feelings of anxiety in the last two weeks, and 56% noted difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, say the study’s findings.

“If you are feeling stressed and anxious after the last year, you are far from alone!” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President of Research at AARP in a statement announcing the survey results. “As our survey highlights, most older adults’ mental health and wellbeing was affected by the pandemic—and some of the ways we coped might not have been great for our health, either. With many communities returning to normal, we hope older adults will consider taking steps to reclaim their health this spring and summer,” she said.

Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic

According to the AARP study findings, seniors are responding to the increased stress in a variety of ways. About one in four of the respondents reported they are eating comfort foods or “unhealthy foods” like chips and candy more often than before the pandemic. And 27 percent of people 50 and over have increased the time they spend praying or meditating. One in 10 survey respondents reported seeking mental health care in the last year, a third of whom did so specifically because of the pandemic. Overall, 15 percent of older adults said that experiencing the pandemic made them more likely to seek help from a mental health provider if they had concerns.

AARP’s survey also highlighted how the pandemic increased loneliness and isolation among those age 50 and over.  Among older adults, 58 percent reported feeling increased loneliness, and 62 percent were less likely to socialize with friends and family compared to before the pandemic.

Voter reform must include accessibility for seniors and persons with disabilities

Published in RINewsToday on May 17, 2021

It’s over 540 days until the November 8, 2022 mid-term elections. The clock is ticking, say voter rights advocates, who are gearing up to push back at voting bills they see as restrictive being introduced at multiple state houses.  

As of March 24, 2021, GOP State legislators, responding to claims of voter fraud and election irregularities in last year’s Presidential election, have introduced 361 bills seen as restrictive by voter rights advocates in 47 states. “That’s 108 more than the 253 similar bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month,” according to data compiled by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“These measures have begun to be enacted. Five restrictive bills have already been signed into law. In addition, at least 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures: 29 have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote),” says the nonpartisan law and policy institute, noting that in some cases “a single bill can have provisions with both restrictive and expansive effects”.

President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats are pushing back at GOP efforts they see as “suppressing voting” and introduced H.R. 1, For the People Act, which would be intended to “expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws, end partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics for federal lawmakers”.  The bill is considered to be the largest overhaul of U.S. voting in a generation, and is opposed by GOP lawmakers, who call it overreaching.

Fix Voter Access Issues for Seniors, and Persons with Disabilities

Although newspapers regularly cover both voter security and voter rights issues, voter access issues impacting seniors and persons with disabilities don’t receive adequate ink. 

Now, a national report’s findings reveal that some obstacles still exist for disabled voters at the polls. The recently released U.S. Election Commission (EAC)’s comprehensive 52-page national report, “Disability and Voting Accessibility in the 2020 Elections,” identified accessibility issues for voters with disabilities.  The study focused on polling place access, mail and absentee voting accessibility, election administration challenges, COVID-19 obstacles, and community involvement.

As the EAC plans for future elections, this data will be crucial in helping officials adopt new voting technologies and address the ever-growing accessibility needs of an aging demographic.

“In an election year with so many obstacles and unknowns, the improvement in accessibility for voters with disabilities is a testament to the hard work and dedication of election officials,” EAC Chairman Ben Hovland said, in a February 16, 2021 statement announcing the release of the report. “We are proud of election officials’ accomplishments during an especially difficult election season. This study provides the EAC with indispensable feedback as we continue our work with election officials and accessibility experts to ensure all Americans can vote privately and independently,” he said.

The EAC spearheaded the study under clearinghouse and research mandates outlined in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The goal of the study was to analyze the 2020 election experience for voters with disabilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on a similar 2012 study also conducted by the EAC in conjunction with Professors Schur and Kruse, of Rutgers University, the project launched immediately after the 2020 general election.

The 2020 study engaged 2,569 respondents including 1,782 voters with disabilities and 787 voters without disabilities. As in 2012, the oversampling of voters with disabilities was designed to produce a sample large enough for more accurate measurements and reliable breakdowns by demographic variables and type of disability.

Compared to 2012, overall results show election officials made great progress serving voters with disabilities and ensuring they could cast a private and independent ballot. Obstacles continue to exist, but improvements were evident.

According to the researchers, voting difficulties among people with disabilities declined markedly from 2012 to 2020. About one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting in 2020. This is double the rate of people without disabilities, but a sizeable drop from 2012.

The study’s findings indicated that among people with disabilities who voted in person, 18 percent reported difficulties, compared to 10 percent of people without disabilities. The disability figure is down from 30 percent in 2012.

During a general election that experienced a shift to mail and absentee voting, 5 percent of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot, compared to 2 percent of voters without disabilities. One in seven (14 percent) of voters with disabilities using a mail ballot needed assistance or encountered problems in voting, compared to only 3 percent of those without disabilities. 

The researchers found that five of six (83 percent) of voters with disabilities voted independently without any difficulty in 2020, compared to over nine of ten (92 percent) of voters without disabilities. Voting difficulties were most common among people with vision and cognitive impairments.

Close to 75 percent of voters with disabilities voted with a mail ballot or early in-person in 2020. This represents a significant increase from 2012 and is higher than the two-thirds of non-disabled voters who did so in 2020, say the researchers. No doubt the pandemic influenced the increase.

Finally, the researchers note that people with disabilities voted at a 7 percent lower rate than people without disabilities of the same age, pointing toward a continuing disability gap in voter turnout.

Senate Moves to Remove Barriers for Seniors and Disabled

Last month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Administration, introduced the Accessible Voting Act, legislation to remove barriers to voting for seniors and people with disabilities.  This legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Notably, an all Democratic sponsorship at this time.

This legislative action was triggered by a Government Accountability Study that found that combined deficiencies in architectural and voting booth access resulted in only 17 percent of polling places being fully accessible in 2016. The Accessible Voting Act would make polling places and voting systems more accessible, expand options for casting a ballot in federal elections and establish an Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission, dedicated to overseeing and supporting state efforts to make voting more accessible.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. That right is jeopardized when seniors and people with disabilities are pushed to the margins by barriers that prevent or make it hard for them to cast their ballots,” said Senator Casey in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill. “The Accessible Voting Act would remove these barriers and support the ongoing efforts by state and local agencies to make voting a truly equitable and accessible process,” he said.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is not possible for too many Americans. Inaccessible polling places and voting booths, limited access to transportation, insufficient options for casting ballots, and inaccessible voter information websites are all obstacles to voting for millions of Americans,” adds Klobuchar. “The Accessible Voting Act would help ensure that we remove barriers to voting for citizens with disabilities, the elderly, Native Americans, and those with limited English proficiency. Our democracy works best when all citizens can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” she said.

“Despite existing federal law protecting the rights of people with disabilities, far too often, these rights are overlooked and forgotten in our electoral process. The Accessible Voting Act seeks to bolster the protections for voters with disabilities, as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act, and ensure equitable access to every American voter in our democracy for years to come,” said Curt Decker, executive director, National Disability Rights Network.

The Accessible Voting Act would create a national resource center on accessible voting to conduct cultural competency training for election officials and poll workers.  It would establish a new state grant program for the Office of Accessibility to provide dedicated funding to improve accessibility to voting. Finally, it would provide voting information and resources through accessible websites so voters know how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

As Congress grapples with legislation coming from both parties to tighten voter security on one hand, and ease voter restrictions on the other, it will be a significant failure to not also address the issues of accessibility for our population facing aging and disability obstacles.