Former U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds donned a new hat as a public speaker Tuesday, one that says “Parent.”
For 35 years, Reynolds lobbied for dozens of issues in his roles as Town of Concord board member, Erie County legislator, New York state assemblyman and congressman.
But on Tuesday morning, the former congressman lobbied for one of his favorite causes – funding for the developmentally disabled – as he stood in front of a large crowd and talked proudly about his son, Mark, a mildly developmentally disabled adult who was celebrating his 32nd birthday.
Reynolds served as the unofficial emcee and head cheerleader for a raucous rally inside the Buffalo Museum of Science, demanding a living wage for the 110,000 workers across the state who provide direct services for the developmentally disabled.
“Be fair to direct care!” roughly 300 self-advocates, family members and service providers bellowed over and over again, trying to shout loudly enough to send their message down the Thruway to Albany.
The event, held in the museum’s auditorium, was part press conference, part pep rally and part revival meeting. Speakers ranged from eight state legislators dressed mostly in dark suits and ties to a mildly autistic artist, Avery “The Definitive” Gill, sporting a gray hoodie and a blue bandanna on his head as he performed a rap song for the appreciative crowd.
At times, the rally seemed like a tailgate party without alcohol.
Advocates for the developmentally disabled are asking for a $45 million hike next year in the state’s commitment to agencies that serve the developmentally disabled, with a vast majority of that money going to the workers who feed, dress, bathe, clothe and groom their clients, teaching them to become as independent as possible.
Those workers haven’t had a raise in eight years, the elder Reynolds and others pointed out, as they pushed for the state funding increase.
“I’m a parent here today who’s not going to get BSed in what it takes to get the governor and State Legislature to adequately support this legislation,” Reynolds said before the 70-minute rally. “I know darn well New York has a tradition of taking care of the developmentally disabled. We have to honor that.”
Mark Reynolds didn’t attend Tuesday’s rally. He was too busy in his routine that includes two daytime programs at People Inc. and Aspire of WNY, a part-time job at Erie Community College and a full social calendar.
He didn’t talk until he was 4, diagnosed with a communications disorder, “although you wouldn’t know it today; he’ll talk your ear off,” his father said. Mark Reynolds has been in special programs since he was 2, trying to overcome his weaknesses, like distraction and inattention to detail.
“My son has taught me more than I ever taught him,” Reynolds said. “He’s taught me how to use the skills he has to the best of his abilities. He’s tried to gain the most independence he can achieve. He has a wonderful outlook about taking care of his fellow clients, his friends. They are very caring for each other.”
The crowd hooted and hollered throughout the rally, using any chance to repeat their slogan, “Be Fair To Direct Care.” And some workers got big ovations when they talked about their love for their jobs, as measured by the smiles, handshakes, thank-yous and hugs from their clients.
Thanks partly to Reynolds, who approached People Inc. executives Rhonda Frederick and Kevin Horrigan over the summer about raising awareness of the funding issue, the event drew an impressive bipartisan crew of eight Buffalo-area state legislators – Sens. Timothy M. Kennedy, Michael H. Ranzenhofer, Patrick M. Gallivan and Robert G. Ortt and Assembly members Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, Sean Ryan, Robin Schimminger and Michael P. Kearns. Sen.-elect Christopher L. Jacobs also attended.
Several pointed out that this was the next needed step following the state’s raising of the minimum wage last year.
“We’re here to capture the energy in this room and let the governor know that when we raised the minimum wage last year, we did not leave you behind,” Ranzenhofer told the cheering crowd.
While thanking Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his economic support for Western New York, Peoples-Stokes noted that the local economy can’t grow if many people don’t get paid enough.
“This can help decrease the number of people who work every day but still live in poverty,” she added.
Speakers walked a fine line, supporting the minimum wage that helps fast-food workers, while supporting higher wages for those who feed and nurture some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Several speakers emphasized they didn’t want to offend fast-food workers. But as Ortt, chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, said, “In my view, someone who takes care of a child with autism, Asperger’s or Down syndrome, that should be a lot higher priority for us than someone making our fries.”