Gov. Dannel P. Malloy named Jonathan Slifka as his “cabinet-level” liaison to the disability community Wednesday, acting at the start of a re-election year to improve relations with a demographic group whose broad diversity Slifka matter-of-factly highlighted.
“The governor and I share a bond in that we both were born with a disability,” Slifka said, sitting next to the governor at an afternoon press conference.
Malloy has dyslexia. Slifka, who was born with spina bifida and is unable to walk, said about one-fifth of Connecticut has some form of disability.
Disability issues are as varied as those with disabilities, and advocates said they want to know more about Slifka’s responsibilities and the Malloy administration’s agenda for the new position.
“There are really disability communities. There is no one disability community,” said Stan Kosloski, the former executive director of the Connecticut Disability Advocacy Collaborative. “It’s going to be a tough, challenging job.
Malloy has had one major conflict with some people with disabilities: An executive order he issued allowing personal care assistants to organize and gain collective bargaining rights. The order was sought by unions that represent health care workers.
“It certainly is a source of frustration,” Slifka said. “At the very least, I hope to be able to be helpful in some way.”
“What we’re attempting to do is to find a right balance between the rights of workers to a fair wage, and presumably a level of benefit and security, and the rights of persons with disabilities to play an active role in the management of that individual,” Malloy said. “They aren’t necessarily in conflict, but they can be in conflict.”
The order still is being implemented, and some advocates fear a loss of services.
“I’m not sure his appointment is material to any of this,” said Walter Glomb, whose 25-year-old son has Down syndrome.
Aside from friction over the executive order, the administration also is trying to stay abreast of rapid changes in what’s considered best practices in assisting persons with intellectual disabilities, a community demanding more and better home-based services as the state retreats from institutional care.
“My first question is, OK, what difference does this make with what’s going on, reconciling the old with the new?” Glomb said.
Slifka is a one-time March of Dimes poster child who inspired his mother to start a wheelchair sports camp. He will be an employee of the state Department of Rehabilitation Services, but be based at the State Capitol.
“He has routinely broken a number of barriers throughout his life,” Malloy said. “He was the first student with a disability to be mainstreamed throughout the West Hartford public school system. He was the first athlete with a disability to play Little League baseball.”
Slifka has played tennis and taught the sport to disabled athletes, coaching at the Ivan Lendl Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp. Kosloski, who also used to play wheelchair basketball, said he remembers Slifka from the camp.
“He’s a great kid,” he said.
The “kid” is now 36, married and living in West Hartford. Starting Friday, he will be the face of the administration on many disability issues, earning $70,000 a year. It was a job he never envisioned when younger.
“I went through a period where I didn’t want to deal with my disability, denying even that I had one,” Slifka said, adding it took time to get “comfortable in my own skin.”
In the audience were Slifka’s wife, Andrea, and his older brother, Scott, a lawyer who is the mayor of West Hartford.