By Douglas J. Usiak
As we’re not that far into the brand New Year, 2019, it seemed to me to be a good time to look back at the state of disability rights in 2018 in these United States.
I am somewhat dismayed, but not entirely surprised, that my first reflection is that people with disabilities are essentially engaged in the same fights that they were one year ago: to maintain the existing legal protections of citizens with disabilities; to preserve, as much as possible, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), for making health care available to many who were unable to acquire it before; and to push for the passage of the Disability Integration Act (S.190, H.R.2472). This bill would make more enforceable the right of people with disabilities, who require long-term care, to live in the least restrictive and most integrated setting, (usually outside of institutions), a principle asserted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Olmstead versus L.C. and E.W.” decision. I recommend you contact your U.S. Senator or Representative to encourage that he/she support the Disability Integration Act! (As Senator Chuck Schumer introduced the bill, last year, HE shouldn’t be too hard to convince.)
A possible ray of light: as the Democrats have assumed control of the House of Representatives in January, even with the Senate and the Presidency firmly in Republican hands, we expect that there will be fewer “slam dunks” of politically-charged legislation — but hope that disability issues are not forgotten in what might become a legislative quagmire. Call me an optimist, but I feel there should be opportunities for our elected officials to reach across the aisle to find common ground, even a cross-party consensus, on our issues, as disabilities do not respect boundaries of politics or beliefs.
Looking at more local concerns, with the Empire State’s Senate now in Democratic hands, Western New Yorker Tim Kennedy was chosen to Chair the Transportation Committee, which could bode well for our citizens with various disabilities, (mobility, vision, etc.), as they face challenges in using our limited public transit systems. And it certainly can’t hurt us that Crystal Peoples-Stokes, also from the local delegation and historically a supporter of disability issues, has been named Assembly Majority Leader – the first woman and the first African-American to gain that high position.
As I write this, “The Battle of the Great Wall”, all by itself, is creating a barrier that’s discouraging the two sides from talking to each other, resulting in the partial Federal Government shut-down. Looking to the horizon, I see no signs of Joshua and his trumpeters, who brought down the walls of Jericho, coming to our rescue anytime soon. Many people with disabilities survive, in part, due to government assistance. However, on-line sources indicate that established benefits you may be receiving, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Unemployment benefits will be paid for now, but processing new claims may see delays. While Erie County has raised concerns about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) stopping after January 31st, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue assures us that February benefits will be available but may come early.
So, while things are not exactly rosy, and those of us who believe that people with disabilities need full and equal participation in our society have a tough row to hoe, I believe that we have reason for hope! BUT, that’s only if you let your voices be heard by our elected leaders, reminding them that America’s Greatness stems from the fact that communication with, and empathy toward, all our citizens is why our Country has led the world in the advancement of human rights!
Douglas J. Usiak is the Chief Executive Officer of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. Family of Agencies (WNYIL). They empower individuals with any disabilities to gain the information and resources needed to improve their quality of life and participate in society on an equal basis. For more information about WNYIL’s services and programs, please contact: (716) 836-0822, ext. 126.