On May 22, four advocates for people with disabilities, including one with a psychiatric disability, shared their perspectives with state commissioners tasked with “dismantling institutional, structural, and systemic discrimination” in Vermont. Members of the public also attended the virtual event.

Established in 2022, the Vermont Truth and Reconciliation Commission carries it out its business – which involves creating a “public record” of past and current harms experienced by various marginalized populations as a result of state policies – in regular monthly meetings. This spring, it initiated a supplemental “educational series” called “VTRC Narratives from History to the Present Day: Extending the Olive Branch through Education.”

“The education series is about expanding our understanding and hearts,” VTRC Executive Director Faith Yacubian said. “The commissioners will not be voting on proposals today.”
In April, a panel discussed “Experiences of Native Americans and French Indians of Vermont.” “Experiences of People with Disabilities” was the title of the second conversation in the series.

One of the panelists, Vermont Center for Independent Living Executive Director Sarah Launderville, identified as a psychiatric survivor. She joined Green Mountain Self-Advocates Outreach Director Max Barrows, who called himself “a person on the autism spectrum”; Cammie M. Naylor, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid’s Disability Law Project; and Cheryl Van Epps, a traumatic brain injury survivor.

Launderville described having been “locked up because I have mental health issues and psychiatric disabilities.” Later, when she had become a leader in the independent living movement, her story began to elicit surprise and skepticism.

“I will always hear feedback like, ‘Oh, you don’t seem that bad,’ or, ‘You don’t seem like you have those issues,’ as if, because I seem and look a certain way, I don’t have a disability,” Launderville recounted. “And non-disabled people will sometimes think that’s a compliment, and for me, who’s pretty prideful that my identity includes multiple disabilities, it’s not.”

Launderville discussed her early struggles to secure accommodations in the workplace for disabilities that didn’t reflect “some of those older ideas around what a disability looks like.”

“When I moved to Vermont, I was moved to a group home, and that’s how I came to live here. And I really, really wanted to work,” she recalled. “I kept losing employment because people don’t always know how to accommodate people.”

“So my case manager helped me fill out benefits for Social Security,” Launderville continued, “and I got in subsidized housing, and I lived in this life that wasn’t the life I wanted to be living. And it was because I wanted to work. And it wasn’t until I found people who understood what it was like to have a disability and accommodate people that I was able to sort of thrive and move into a life that I think that not only I but other people deserve.”

Yacubian asked the panelists to choose any existing “service aimed to support persons with disabilities in education, healthcare, employment, or another institution in Vermont” and explain how they would remake or improve it if they had the power to do so. In response, Launderville sought to “push back,” as she put it, on the question’s focus on services within institutions, instead of institutions themselves. She advocated for “thinking things through a little bit more holistically.”

“All the different things you just said, like education, healthcare, employment, all of them have flaws around how we make sure that this world is really accessible to folks with disabilities,” Launderville said. “Let’s start talking for real about how we need to build this back up from those root causes to something that’s really going to work for everybody.”

In her view, that conversation can take place only by “centering the voices of people with disabilities, no matter what. Not the parents, not friends, not family members. People with disabilities.”

The Commission will hold the next event in its educational series, “Experiences of Black People of Vermont,” on June 26. Its work will continue until May 2027, thanks to recent legislation that extended the deadline for its final report by 10 months. One of the commissioners had resigned in November, and since then, the VTRC has made do with just two.

The bill was controversial on account of another provision that exempted the Commission from the Vermont Open Meeting Law. In determining to allow the VTRC and its subcommittees to deliberate behind closed doors, lawmakers cited the “the highly sensitive nature” of their duties.

The Vermont Press Association opposed the legislation. Much of the VTRC’s work will remain publicly accessible, including its educational series.

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