TRENTON — Lawmakers and advocacy groups announced a new Legislative Disability Caucus in an online event Tuesday, with the aim of increasing awareness about a complex system of services that isn’t usually at the forefront of Statehouse debates.

Mercedes Witowsky, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, said New Jersey becomes one of eight state legislatures with such a panel.

“I’m going to venture to say that the New Jersey Legislative Disability Caucus will be the strongest, wisest, fairest in representing one in four New Jerseyans who identify with having some type of disability,” Witkowsky said.

“This disability caucus allows people and families to be proactive with their legislators instead of reactive,” said Kevin Nuñez, a blogger and podcaster who has cerebral palsy and is a member of the Council on Developmental Disabilities.

“I would just implore the caucus to keep focused on its mission, which is to make sure that every single issue that goes before the Statehouse is seen through a disability lens,” said Donald Campbell, director of the Atlantic Center for Independent Living.

Nearly one-fourth of the 120-member Legislature signed on as founding caucus members, including the highest-ranking Democrat and Republican in the Senate.

“You can’t forget these people,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “So as we’re developing legislation that is going to have an impact on everyone in the state, we have to make sure that people with disabilities, that their views are put into the mix also.”

“Frankly, I think that most of us would agree that what we are announcing today is long overdue,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union. “The current public health emergency has really driven home the desperate need for this collaborative effort.”

Kean said families were cut off from needed services during the coronavirus lockdown, with little guidance from the state.

Sarah Aziz, of Monroe, the mother of a 12-year-old with autism, worries that experience will be repeated as COVID-19 cases rise and schools consider again closing their doors in favor of all-virtual learning.

“Many of our children have suffered over a year’s worth of regression over the past eight months and it will be difficult for them to catch up,” said Aziz, a parent advocate for the Regional Family Support Planning Council.

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The caucus includes 11 senators and 18 Assembly members. It plans issue briefings once a quarter, beginning Jan. 26.

“Tearing down barriers and creating accommodations is not about something that’s nice to have,” said Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Mercer. “This is about making sure that we honor the civil rights of all of New Jersey’s residents with disabilities.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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