Prairie Politics

Disability advocate calls for state agency spokeswoman’s resignation

Screenshot of John Hanna’s Facebook page
Screenshot of John Hanna’s Facebook page Courtesy of John Hanna/Facebook

The executive director of a group that works with intellectually and developmentally disabled Kansans called Wednesday for the resignation of a state agency spokeswoman who used the phrase “slow learners” on social media.

Angela de Rocha, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, criticized on Facebook an effort by the League of Women Voters to teach college students how to register themselves and their peers to vote.

De Rocha questioned that it took a course to register, quipping, “Do we want these slow learners voting?”

Tim Cunningham, executive director of Tri-Valley Developmental Services, a Chanute-based group that provides transportation and residential services to intellectually and developmentally disabled Kansans, said in an e-mail that he was appalled by de Rocha’s comment.

“Is she suggesting that people who are ‘slow learners’ should not be allowed to vote? This is not the type of message we want coming from the spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services,” Cunningham wrote in an e-mail to eight lawmakers from southeast Kansas and to Kari Bruffett, secretary of the disabililty services and aging department and de Rocha’s superior. “This is not the first time she has caused angst among people with disabilities by her comments and it is time for her to go!”

Cunningham said in a phone call that at the very least de Rocha and the agency should apologize for her comments.

“People with disabilities are some of the most informed people out there and just because you’re a little slow, according to her, doesn’t mean you’re a bad voter,” he said. His organization, which works with the state department to provide home care to disabled Kansans, also helps register them to vote.

Bruffett responded to Cunningham in an e-mail that he and the agency forwarded to The Eagle. In it, she said she did not read de Rocha’s comments as “a reference to people with disabilities.”

“I’ve talked with Angela, and she is stunned her personal comments were taken that way,” Bruffett wrote.

De Rocha’s comments were in reference to the idea that college students needed to be taught how to register to vote. The League partnered with university professors to develop a unit, which can be taught over a day or week, after learning that a large number of people whose registrations are suspended because they failed to provide proof of citizenship are under age 30.

Bruffett said in the e-mail that when she visited Chanute recently, “the number of people Tri-Valley serves who indicated they were registered voters was testimony to the work you and others have done to ensure people with disabilities are able to exercise their civic responsibilities.”

“At KDADS, we’ve discussed highlighting similar efforts around the state, tied to the coming presidential election year, reinforcing the value of full participation of all citizens, regardless of disability, in civic life,” Bruffett continued.

Attempts to reach Bruffett by phone were unsuccessful Wednesday. De Rocha, who had said Tuesday that she did not want to make additional comments about her post, said Bruffett’s e-mail would serve as the agency’s response.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, called on Bruffett and Gov. Sam Brownback to clarify whether de Rocha’s comments represent the agency and, if not, to take disciplinary action.

“While she has a right to her own opinion, her latest comments are undeniably shameful given her position as the spokesperson for the state agency that provides services to Kansans with disabilities,” said Hensley, who taught special-education classes for nearly 30 years.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, one of the lawmakers who received Cunningham’s e-mail, said he does not think de Rocha intended to offend the disability community. But, he said, the controversy provides an opportunity to recognize the importance of disabled voters.

“Some members of the disability community in my district are among the most active voters in politics that I know. They are very engaged,” he said. “They take the time to learn about the issues and to talk to me about the issues, and are very valuable voters and should be treated as such.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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