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Program to help those who live with disabilities live where they please

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Damitra Penny was attacked while sleeping in her Hill District home back in 2001. But while the incident left her in a wheelchair, and paralyzed from the waist down, she'll be the first to say she isn't confined.

"The first thing they told me was that I was going to a nursing home," she said. "And I told them, 'I'm going right back to my house.' My legs might not be working but my mind is."

Penny serves on the Health Committee for People with Disabilities, an advocacy group that promotes independency and fair treatment for people with disabilities.

Today, many people with disabilities -- those with mental, physical or behavioral disadvantages -- are persuaded to go into institutionalized care, such as nursing homes, rather than live on their own with assistance, according to Consumer Health Coalition's Sally Jo Snyder.

In Penny's experience, she was advised by her case-worker at the hospital to live in a nursing home. However, according to Snyder, it is still the status quo that people with disabilities get institutionalized care, because it is assumed by relatives and social workers that the person cannot live independently.

"If people with disabilities are at the point where they decide to get institutionalized care, the moving van will be at their home in three hours," Snyder said.

Approximately 70 percent of Pennsylvania's state funding for people with disabilities goes to institutionalized-care facilities, according to Snyder, while the remaining 30 percent is left for home-health services like nurses and aides.

That is why the Consumer Health Coalition is starting the "I Am Your Neighbor" campaign to urge state politicians to support an increase in funding for home- and community-based services in the 2007-2008 state budget. The goal, Snyder says, is to have those percentages equal, at 50 percent each, by the year 2012

The coalition strives to give people with disabilities a political voice; it hosts townhall meetings and rallies and offers several ways to contact local and state politicians, including sponsoring bus trips to Harrisburg.

It also offers support that Snyder says is "absolutely vital."

"People ages 18 to 64 with disabilities are referred to as the forgotten people," she said. "In our society they are the most easily dismissed, forgotten and ignored. That absolutely needs to change."

Penny, who also has Lou Gehrig's disease and is afflicted with arthritis, still lives on her own; a visiting nurse helps her around the house. She is getting used to living with her disability, but still faces people who treat her with disrespect and ignorance.

"People definitely look at me different," she said. "Someone once told me, 'You don't sound like someone in a wheelchair.' How does a person in a wheelchair sound, exactly?"

It is encounters like these that make Penny determined to defy stereotypes and help other people with disabilities feel accepted and empowered.

"People with glasses have a disability, too," she said. "But their case is acceptable. You certainly wouldn't put them in an institution."

The "I Am Your Neighbor" campaign launched last Thursday, May 17, with an event at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. The campaign's mission is to give people with disabilities a voice in their community and their state, a voice that may help bring more of our neighbors back into the community and out of the nursing home.

"Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, just like I do," Penny said. "He asked people not to judge by race, and I'm asking people not to judge because of a disability. People just need to see each other for who they are."

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