Dr. Breanca Merritt has a long history of working to amplify a variety of marginalized voices. This makes her more in tune with the underlying spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is about much more than installing wheelchair ramps or automatic doors.
“When we talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act, folks get stuck on the act itself and not so much the spirit of the ADA,” Merritt said. “It’s easy to get hung up on whether we’re checking all the right boxes for people with disabilities. But agencies need to incorporate more universal design principles so we can think about how to improve experiences for everyone, which will therefore improve experiences for people with disabilities.”
Merritt’s all-encompassing mindset makes her a perfect fit for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration’s (FSSA) brand new role — Chief Health Equity and ADA Officer.
Taking on a New Role
Merritt’s position was created to “provide leadership in the evaluation of policy decisions that affect race equity, to build metrics for agency accountability, ensuring agency adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to serve at the executive level working to build a culture of equity across the agency,” a press release from FSSA read.
This is a natural, smooth segue from Merritt’s previous position as senior research analyst and founding director of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy (CRISP) at IUPUI.
“That work focused on supporting local government and a lot of nonprofits on different types of factors that could influence policy,” she said. “Those factors include eviction, housing, criminal justice, poverty, etc. In my work, I practice the idea that all factors are associated with health outcomes. Health equity is the idea that everyone deserves an opportunity to have good health and have any barriers surrounding that removed.”
Merritt understands the need for widespread equity from engaging with a diverse set of marginalized communities across the state.
“I’ve worked with many different populations, including people of color, folks with low income, immigrants, older adults and those with disabilities,” she said. “Focusing on those populations has allowed me to take on this new position with FSSA, which involves managing our Office of Healthy Opportunities with the goal of improving social drivers of health for Hoosiers, including those with disabilities. The fact that I have ADA Officer in my title puts a fine point on the fact that we need to pay extra attention to people with disabilities, specifically when it comes to their experiences with our agency, whether they’re receiving services from us or working for us.”
Merritt’s First Steps
The first effort Merritt took in her current position was forming a committee to address ADA-related issues and bringing people with lived experience to the table.
“I wanted to make sure we weren’t just being ADA-compliant but that we were creating a positive experience for people, and you can’t do that without feedback from disciplinary experts, caregivers and people who have disabilities themselves,” Merritt said.
This committee is piloting a user testing program, which taps caregivers and people with disabilities for feedback in the development of assistive technology, community programs, policy changes, etc.
To Merritt, this kind of communication is key.
“It’s important to have a consistent pipeline of communication not just for people with disabilities but also for our community partners to ensure that we’re listening and engaging with folks appropriately so that if we’re making policy changes, they can tell us, ‘Hey, here’s some stuff that’s not working for us,’” she said.
The user testing program also involves keeping frontline FSSA staff apprised of disability issues and developing an etiquette guide to help them effectively engage with the disabled community.
Moving Toward the Future
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, the construction of a completely inclusive, accessible Indiana will take some time. But Merritt is up for the task.
“This new role involves consolidating a lot of complex policies, existing procedures and user experiences across multiple divisions of an agency where people with disabilities interact,” she said. “So, we focus a lot on our Division of Disability and Rehabilitative Services, but if you’re a person who might have a workforce barrier or income-related needs, you’ll probably interact with our Medicaid office, with our SNAP office, with our aging office, potentially with our First Steps office, which intersects with our Early Learning office. So, thinking about how to consolidate all of that into a more streamlined approach will take a while, but we’re excited to have the opportunity to pursue something so comprehensive for one of the largest agencies of the state.”
To speak with Merritt about any of your own ADA or health equity needs, you can contact her at email@example.com.