Advocates for the disabled lobby state lawmakers

COLUMBIA -- Four years ago, Sue Copeland quit her job as a department store manager to devote herself to caring full time for her two young children.

Both children, then ages 2 and 8, were diagnosed with forms of autism.

Like a number of parents, she said she finds herself fighting constantly to get her children the rights they deserve.

She joined about 500 advocates for those with disabilities at the Statehouse on Wednesday as they brought their fight for funding and services to their legislators.

"This is our day to shine, to bring all of our lights together," Copeland said. "This is our day of epiphany."

The 2008 Disability Advocacy Day is an opportunity for the disabled, their families and service providers to visit lawmakers and promote their priorities.

But some said they've grown frustrated with voicing the same concerns year after year.

"Every year, parents and advocates have to come take a stand against (budget cuts,)" said W.C. Hoeke, from Family Connection of S.C., a support group that brings together families with similar disabilities to share their experiences.

"Why do we have to come and beg for services?"

Jobs, housing, therapeutic services and an end to waiting lists for services were among the major concerns voiced this year.

About 4,800 disabled people are on waiting lists for services, according to the S.C. Partnership of Disability Organizations.

The numbers are largely unchanged from 2007.

Some people have been on waiting lists for two years, said Ralph Courtney, executive director of the Aiken County Board of Disabilities.

Courtney said the state's lack of services for adults with disabilities sets them up for lifelong dependency.

"It seems like a waste of human potential," he said.

Advocates for people with disabilities don't have paid lobbyists appealing to lawmakers regularly. That, they said, is their job.

"Our strength is being able to tell our stories," said Redick Loring, program coordinator for Parents in Policymaking.

"(Parents can say) 'this is my child's life with services, this is my child's life without services."'

Copeland said she remains optimistic that her time speaking to, and frequently e-mailing, lawmakers will make a difference.

"When you give your personal stories, it really touches their heart more than when you pull out big numbers."