Activist for disabilities rights bring ‘people power’ to the Texas Capitol

ADAPT of Texas pushes for better pay for community attendants who help Texans with disabilities have an independent life.

When Bob Kafka paid the barista for his afternoon caffeine boost at a popular coffee shop in the shadow of the Texas Capitol, he was literally handing money to his competition.

Kafka, a quadriplegic who has used a wheelchair to get around since being injured in a car wreck 46 years ago, is one of the leading advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in Texas. He’s pushed for better access to public facilities, alternatives to life nursing homes for people who can live independently and for reliable public transportation for people with limited mobility.

ADAPT organizer Bob Kafka is one of the leading advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in Texas.

And as action picks up in the 2019 legislative session, Kafka’s mission is to persuade lawmakers to raise the Medicaid-subsidized pay for what he calls community attendants who provide basic care for an estimated 200,000 Texans with disabilities who might otherwise be institutionalized.

‘We have a literal crisis’. “Right now the base wage for most (attendants) is $8 an hour,” Kafka said in an interview. “No health insurance, no vacation, no sick leave. You can go almost anywhere in Austin, Brownsville, Amarillo, Tyler, and they’re paying $10-12 an hour for fast food.

“We have a literal crisis. We have a shortage of people who want to do this kind of work. They can make more at Starbucks.”

He’s pushing to increase the pay to $15 an hour. It’ll cost the state more than $1 billion. But if people with disabilities cannot cannot get attendants who make independent living possible, they’d be forced into nursing homes that would cost taxpayers more money in the long run, Kafka said.

For more than two decades, Kafka has been a fixture at the Texas Capitol. When the Legislature is in session, he leads a cadre of volunteers, most of them in wheelchairs, who pay visits to lawmakers’ offices, educate legislative staff members and hand out a seemingly never-ending supply one-page fact sheets to House members and senators as the enter their respective chambers.

What they do appears to be intense lobbying. But it would be a mistake to call them lobbyists. They aren’t paid for their advocacy and, unlike paid lobbyists at the Capitol, they have zero money to spend on meals and drinks for politicians to call attention to their cause.

During a recent visit to the Capitol, Kafka and five volunteers from the disabilities-rights group called ADAPT of Texas assembled outside the hearing room where the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee meets. A lawmaker called out to them with a “how you doing?” as he prepared to go through a private back-room entrance.

“Tell them we need $15 an hour for community attendants,” Kafka replied without missing a beat.

Kafka, a New York native who’s 72 and still speaks with a thick Bronx accent despite having lived in Texas nearly half his life, knows he’s in an uphill fight this year. Although lawmakers are not facing a cash shortfall, state leaders have made clear that this session their priority is to boost spend for public schools.

But he also knows that persistence pays off. When he first came to the Capitol, about 80 percent of people with physical and mental disabilities receiving government assistance were in nursing homes. The ratio is about 50-50 now, Kafka said.

Former state Rep. Velma Luna, a Democrat who represented Corpus Christi in the Texas House from 1993 until 2006, said Kafka and the ADAPT volunteer have put a human face on people who a generation or two ago were sometimes referred to as shut-ins.

“They’ve really raised awareness, especially for people whose live might not have been touched by someone who’s disabled, someone in a wheelchair,” said Luna, who in her final terms in Austin was vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. “They have humanized an entire community.

Cathy Cranston, an ADAPT organizer whose husband Ron is among the volunteer advocates, said the need for home attendants is vital. For some clients, attendants might be the only people they interact with regularly.

“They provide basic human contact for so many people who are hungry for human contact,” Cranston said. “That is so important.”

The attendants provide much more than that, Kafka added, acknowledging the demanding nature of the work done by community attendants.

“If you need somebody to help you get in and out of bed, shower, toileting, whatever, it’s a seven-day-a-week need,” he said, noting the high rates of burnout and turnover.

“I can tell when one of our people are having trouble finding attendants,” he added. “Besides their mental approach, they physically look different,” he said, adding clients are more prone to sickness and infection “because they had to sleep in their wheelchair.”

“We had one person tell us she had a home attendant for 20 minutes,” he said. “Just think of that.”

Jim Brocato, executive director of the Rise Center for Independent Living in Beaumont, said the work Kafka and his ADAPT volunteers do in Austin reverberates around the state.

“Bob Kafka is the guru of advocacy for independent living,” Brocato said. “He is knowledgeable and he’s prepared. He is modest but relentless. The work he’s done has kept people out of nursing homes who don’t need to be in nursing homes.”

Kafka is a Vietnam veteran who graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in economics. His attire, even when testifying at legislative hearings, is generally jeans, a T-shirt and a wide-brimmed hat with a flower in the band covering the top of shoulder-length graying curls.

He once boasted that he hasn’t owned a suit and tie since being discharged from the Army in 1967. His early advocacy, including activism to help pass the Americans with Disabilities Act during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, was sometimes confrontation and once led to him being arrested. His approach has mellowed since then.

“We’ve done over the years civil disobedience,” he said. “I can tell you, chain yourself one time to anything and that’s the only thing anyone will remember.”

He calls the approach to advocacy by him and the ADAPT volunteers “people power.”

“They’re well-trained and they know what they’re doing,” Kafka said. “Everyone of our people are volunteers They are people who are receiving services.

“We personalize it. So much of the stuff at the Capitol is devoid of people.”