U.S Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45) of Orange County, CA grew up in Iowa watching Sen. Tom Harkin and learning about the ADA. Rep. Porter sees the rights of people with disabilities that have yet to be fully realized. Serving her second term in the House, Rep. Porter is known for whipping out her dry erase board during House committee hearings to school CEO’s and other powerful officials about how their actions impact everyday Americans and how they need to make changes. Occasionally, she’ll quote from a law text book she authored. With a history of being a consumer protection attorney and law professor, she is a fierce advocate and champion for equity when it comes to people with disabilities and people of color. ABILITY Magazine caught up the busy congresswoman to talk about her work related to mental health care and accessibility rights.
Chet Cooper: How did mental health get on your list of as a congresswoman?
Katie Porter: Like so many Americans, my family and friends have faced mental health challenges. There are very few families, workplaces, or communities that haven’t face those challenges. One of the things I’ve seen is, even as we’ve made advances in the ability to treat mental health, the actual delivery of that treatment along with affordability and accessibility often lags behind. One of the things I’ve been focused on is making sure insurers and providers are delivering on mental healthcare. When I moved to Orange County ten years ago, there were no pediatric mental health beds in the entire county. You might think, “Well, it’s just a county.” Orange County is bigger than some 20 states, and yet we had no pediatric mental health beds. Although that’s changed with the leadership of our Children’s Hospital over time, it goes to show you how difficult it is to find mental healthcare as well as afford it. So, when I talk about people being healthy, I mean healthy in every aspect of their lives, both physical and mental health.
Cooper: How did you know about the lack of support for children with mental health issues?
Porter: Talking to different people about their experiences. One of the great things about being a Congressperson is that people share their life stories with you. They share their frustrations with you.
I grew up in Iowa, Tom Harkin was my Senator. I remember what a big deal it was to have the ADA pass. One of the most amazing things that have occurred since is that the stigma has been reduced. More and more people feel like they can talk about their frustrations and challenges, what they couldn’t accomplish, what they couldn’t get in terms of wellness and what they often are falling short on.
I started talking to different to psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, schools, teachers in our community. I have educated myself on their challenges. That’s part of being a Representative—that learning part—learning what the problems are in your community. The next logical and needed step is to teach other people about them to create the momentum to fix them.
Cooper: I did some homework on you, but I somehow missed your connection with Iowa. Sen. Harkin wrote for us for 14 years, I don’t know if you know that, for the magazine. So that’s wonderful that you have the beginnings of your awareness of the ADA and where it is. In that vein, when you look at the ADA and you look at the ADA-AA, when it went back to Congress and it was reintroduced and it defined what a disability is, can you see that kind of legislation happening again with creating new laws connected to some of the issues we’re having today? If so, specifically I was thinking about the legislation that may exist about companies being individuals, that a company has the rights of an individual, and how the money now can go to corporate—you know what I’m trying to say.
Cooper: Can you talk to us about that?
Porter: There are real lessons to be drawn from the successes of the ADA, from the successes of the advocacy of the disability community and those who support the disability community. What these lessons reveal, is that by allowing every American, regardless of their different abilities, to achieve their potential is a great thing for our economy. Sometimes the issues get portrayed as if making sure that people with disabilities can have the ability to work, shop, worship, and to engage in their community, that somehow that is an “expense” or a “burden.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, when we design inclusive things, not only do we create opportunity for people with disabilities to contribute to our economy but often, designing things from an inclusive perspective creates a better outcome for everybody.
I chaired my hearing this fall on the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee on Natural Resources. I was really interested in the topic of accessibility of public lands. I mean accessibility in a lot of different ways, including the costs of getting there, the transportation issues, where we locate these public lands in terms of environmental justice. But I also meant very particularly accessibility for the disability community. Here’s what I learned. Good trail design that helps people with physical disabilities is also the right kind of trail design to prevent erosion and ensure conservation. In addition to making these trails more accessible for people who, for example, may use wheelchairs, may use different kinds of mobility assistance, you also make those trails easier for people who use strollers and have kids, for people who are seniors who may have balance challenges.
The result is more people enjoying and discovering our national parks, more people on our public lands. And that is good for both our souls and our spirits and also for our economy in those rural communities around the public lands. It’s a false idea that sometimes gets pushed out by corporations or by the business community that accommodating every American to the extent possible is somehow a burden or an expense. To the contrary, it is a benefit, a privilege that we are able in our country to welcome everybody into these parks, institutions, and organizations.
Cooper: We did a lot of work around accessibility in the parks. It’s an ongoing effort. There are certain areas, as you know, when you’re hiking, where there are challenges to the terrain and how you create a situation that maybe there were steps going up a hill, to make that more of an accessible area and carve it in such a way that a wheelchair or, like you say, a stroller, so that people can access the beauty of what we have in natural resources in our country.
Porter: A lot of the things that people think of in a strict sense as accommodations for the disability community also benefitted me, as a single mom with three kids, making those trails and parks accessible to my kids and me. A great example here is designing picnic tables that accommodate wheelchairs. Those same picnic tables also accommodate high chairs and people who need different kinds of seating and different kinds of support when they sit. So, there’s a lot of inclusive design principle that we ought to be bringing to everything, recognizing, too, it’s not just one kind of disability, or just one group of people.
So, the more inclusive we can be in those design principles, we’ll be better at achieving our goals and setting ourselves up for the future. I hope we’ll continue to see more options and possibilities for people with disabilities to fully participate.
Cooper: Do you know the term “visitability”?
Porter: Yes, exactly. That’s a great one. Visitability. I like that.
Cooper: There’s legislation supposedly sitting somewhere on the Hill that says that new home development should have a minimum visibility, meaning some entrance to the home as a zero-step entrance, hallways accessible, and a downstairs bathroom that’s accessible so people who might have an ability issue can visit the home. And of course, there’s a greater push for the overall universal design concept, which visitability is just part of universal design. Even when you’re talking about the parks, if we think architecturally in developing anything we do as a universal design component, then everyone wins.
Porter: That’s exactly right. One of the things we’ve seen, for example, is with housing for our military. My teacher, Senator Warren, pushes for more military housing to be built that will accommodate people with disabilities. But if we were to design these houses with a visitability lens, like you said, we would build them all that way. That means as the population of people with disabilities goes up and down, we don’t run into these shortages and blockages because we’ve designed it so that it’s appropriate for everybody right from the start.
Cooper: Right! Of course, with the aging of the country, of the world, we have more and more people who will continue to acquire more mobility issues as they age.
Porter: Absolutely. Orange County, California, really boomed in the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s, and a lot of those folks now are aging. In California’s 45th district, which I represent, we have an aging population. We’re also homes to the second largest retirement community in the U.S., Laguna Woods. Many of us at a different place in our lives will benefit from different kinds of accommodations. That’s why I don’t want to think about accommodating disabilities as something we do just for people with disabilities, but it’s something we do for all of us. We all benefit from having people with disabilities be in these places. We all will benefit from those universal design principles, often at different points in our lives.
Cooper: One of the issues we look at with the environment is that if we don’t have a healthy environment, we don’t have healthy people. Lots of things occur because of pollution to the environment ranging from getting cancer, all the things that could happen. Currently we both have experienced an issue locally with the oil spill. Can you talk about your concerns there and what we can do to move the needle even faster with environmental issues?
Porter: Look, healthy air, clean water, being able to be healthy in your environment is something that’s important for all Americans, but it is particularly important for people who may be struggling with lung disease, or those who have more difficult conditions to treat. This is an issue of equity, of justice. We know that certain communities as well as communities of color have long been the repository of pollution. It’s important to begin the transition to clean energy by understanding it as something we’re doing for our health and for our planet, but also for our economic competitiveness. Many of our competitor countries, including China, are investing much more in green energy than we are. They understand that the economy that has the manufacturing jobs for the next century will be the country that figures out how to manufacture in a clean way.
It’s the same thing in terms of thinking about housing shortage, which is a big issue here in California. How can we build more housing? Part of that is thinking about how we can build housing in a green way that minimizes the harm to the environment and lets us put in more dense housing without harming our environment.
[Assistant to Porter: I just wanted to jump in here and say that we have time for one more question.]
Cooper: That was fast! I wanted to share how impressive it was watching you pressuring to get an answer around COVID testing and the cost. How can we take your energy to do things like that again around climate change? Where can you take your expertise and that background information that you gather?
Porter: One of the things that is really, really important as an elected official is to be honest with the American people. That means pushing some of these fossil fuel companies to push against what we call “green washing.” They say that they’re all about clean energy transition, yet they continue behind the scenes to spend millions and millions of dollars lobbying against clean energy initiatives. It’s really important not just to ask, “Do you support clean energy? Do you like polar bears?” Everybody will say yes. But to say, “What action will you take to put behind your words?” When you think back to the conversation I had with the CDC director about free COVID testing, if I had asked him, “Do you think that anyone should not get a COVID test because they’re worried about the expense?” he would have said, “Oh, of course not. I think everybody should get a COVID test who needs one.” But that doesn’t mean that everyone will be able to get one. You have to push for, “What is the action you’re able to connect this to?”
If you’re testifying before me and you’re saying that you believe climate change is real and you think it’s an existential threat, I need to hear, the American people need to hear, and the people of this world need to hear what it is that you are doing. What are you doing to reduce emissions? What are you doing to change your business model? What are you doing to make a difference?” It needs to be meaningful and real. It can’t be empty words.
I just want to say one word quickly on a couple of healthcare bills I have, not mental health, but other healthcare bills.
Porter: People with disabilities often face special healthcare needs, but what they get from the healthcare system is distinctly unfair treatment. We see this in a lot of different ways, everything from denials of organ transplants to very, very difficult, arduous arguments about what is and is not medically necessary for people with disabilities. I’ve been working across the aisle to address some of these issues, and I’m really grateful for the disability community in helping me understand these challenges and raise them. For example, with my colleague Jamie Herrera Butler, a Republican Representative from Washington, we have introduced the Charlotte Woodward Organ Transplant Discrimination Prevention Act. It would end blatant discrimination in organ donation against people with disabilities, which is often based on perceived years of quality life in ways that are unfair to people with disabilities.
We’ve also been working on making sure that we preserve the tax deduction for extraordinary medical expenses. That is a big issue. People with disabilities need that tax deduction preserved because they might need treatment for their disability throughout their lifetime. We have to keep looking at the performance of insurers. For me, this started with an interest in mental health parity, the promise that ensures to treat mental health and physical health the same. They do not. They break that promise year after years. So, I’ve passed a bill to help crack down on insurers, and that got me interested in how insurers define “medical necessity.” The way that they do this with regard to things like wheelchairs, assistive devices, prostheses, is really, really problematic. It’s often very, very biased against the disability community and prevents them from being as healthy as they could be.
Cooper: What are you doing about that part of how they’re defining it?
Porter: I’ve written to the Biden administration and asked them to issue better guidance to insurance companies on what they mean by “medical necessity” and to police insurers more. We should not be putting it on patients, on consumers, to be able to go to battle with these huge insurance companies, with big insurance. That is the job of the government, to fairly enforce the law and to look behind what may seem like innocuous definitions of medical necessity and see how in real life they are discriminating against people with disabilities.
Cooper: I know you have to run.
Porter: Yes. Thank you so much for the opportunity.