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Hundreds attended the District’s Office of Disability Rights Annual Disability Awareness Exposition at Kennedy Recreation Center in Northwest. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)

The District’s Office of Disability Rights held the Mayor’s Annual Disability Awareness Exposition to help residents navigate the city’s legal and social services tailored to meet special needs. More than 40 service providers and hiring companies met with hundreds of residents to answer questions concerning everything from advocating for children with learning disabilities to ensuring rental properties maintain safe accommodations for tenants with physical challenges.

“A lot of residents who have special needs are unaware of their rights under the law from housing to dealing with caregivers, so it is important that they are provided with information about not only how to address concerns, but also their ability to seek litigation when necessary,” Wallace Kirby, an attorney with University Legal Services’ Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Disabilities office, told the AFRO. “Service providers must be held to a certain standard and meet specific criteria in order to operate.  We believe they are getting better at meeting regulations, but when there are issues, we are here.”

While some participants sought legal assistance, many included parents whose children were being academically left behind and needed a clearer understanding of how to advocate for student’s rights. “A lot of the parents are not educated on the special education process and they come to us for services related to placements or if they are having issues with the schools – such as excessive suspensions or expulsions,” said Leslie Hatton, a parent support worker with the Advocate for Justice in Education office.

Hatton, who once used the services to help with her own children’s matriculation, told the AFRO her son had been in jeopardy of repeating the ninth grade for the third time when she sought help.

“It was my opinion that it was the school’s responsibility to determine what was going on with his inability to keep up that was not about behavior or acting out. He was labeled a troublemaker, but was later diagnosed with an emotional disturbance that was the cause,” Hatton said. “We educate parents and let them know their rights, so they can effectively communicate and not have to go through what I did.”

Attendees seeking  assistance with substance abuse recovery found several advocacy groups and agencies. “We provide a space of comfort to those dealing with recovery or substance abuse issues where we simply invite anyone in need to come in and have a cup of coffee,” said Cydnee Floyd, a peer specialist at Open Door Community Wellness Center in Southwest D.C. “We don’t ask them for any information about themselves starting out, we simply allow them the comfort of kindness. As they get settled, we begin the dialogue about whether they feel they need anything.  It is at that point that we connect them to any resources they need.”