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Washington, D.C., Mar. 23 – As negotiations in the United States Senate bog down around a proposed $1.6 trillion economic stimulus package, disability advocates seek allies to ensure that the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic helps, rather than injures, the largest minority community in America.
The nation is facing unprecedented social, economic and health challenges at every level of society and the 1-in-5 people with disabilities are uniquely vulnerable to the disruptive consequences of COVID-19. Whether we are talking about issues of food insecurity, access to healthcare/testing, switching to telework, or life-or-death medical decisions, the disability community is deeply impacted by these events.
Thus far, Congress has passed two major bills to mitigate some of the health and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Congress is now debating a so-called “phase 3” bill called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (S.3548), which was just introduced to the United States Senate Committee on Finance led by Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA). This proposal includes a much broader range of proposals including significant support for small businesses, bail outs for industries directly impacted by the pandemic as well as potential up to $300 billion in direct checks for Americans. This proposal also expands unemployment insurance.
This stimulus package could be followed by another bill several weeks from now. If a phase 4 bill would move forward, then it might contain much larger policy changes as the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic become clearer.
Across these various proposals, a wide range of disability rights, inclusion and advocacy organizations are working hard to include disability specific provisions. While not an exhaustive list, several priorities are at the forefront of those discussion. These include:
- Ensure that Emergency Income Relief Does Not Throw People with Disabilities off of Life-Saving Health Care and Supports. Some people would receive a check from the government to compensate for lost income. However, at present, the bill would exclude people with disabilities who are striving to work but have not yet secured enough income to file a tax return last year. This also would exclude people with disabilities who are on benefits who are not required to submit a tax return. Likewise, the Senate stimulus package also restricts the amount of such a check based on a person’s existing income. Unfortunately, this would exclude many individuals with disabilities, including the 26 percent of the disability community living in poverty. Lastly, people with disabilities who are receiving SSI face strict asset limits on how much money they can keep month-to-month and people on SSDI are limited in how much money they can earn from part-time work. If the asset limit ($2,000) issue is not addressed in the Senate bill, people with disabilities who are receiving SSI benefits and receive a stimulus check that puts them over the asset limit could suddenly find themselves losing their health care, a potentially life-ending outcome. Likewise, jobseekers with disabilities who are striving for work and face economic hardship at this should not be excluded either.
- Provide Paid Sick Leave to Family Caregivers for People with Disabilities and Older Adults. As the personal care attendants (PCAs) critical to the day-to-day life of people with disabilities themselves test ill with the virus, we need to ensure that friends and family members who need to take leave in order to meet the critical needs of their loved ones are covered within the paid leave act. People with disabilities must know they are secure in this time of crisis. Similarly, the caregivers themselves also should receive paid leave, to ensure that they are healthy and readily able to return to playing a vital role in the lives of so many Americans.
- Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) need to be counted as essential staff during the current crisis. Workers with disabilities are caught front and center in the economic disruptions caused by the pandemic. From hospitality employees laid off from closing businesses to essential workers still showing up for work amidst the outbreak, the nation’s 7.6 million workers with disabilities face enormous challenges. Some of those employees with disabilities count on direct support professionals (DSPs) such as job coaches to help them succeed in the competitive workforce. In many states, it is not yet clear if DSPs count as essential staff or not, weakening the web of supports that ensure the success of some workers with disabilities. Thus, federal and state leadership is needed on this issue. The Association for People Supporting Employment First (APSE) is one of the key organizations leading the fight to support DSPs nationwide.
- Ensure People with Disabilities Have the Medicine and Food They Need in This Time of Quarantine. The realities of quarantine efforts to keep the community safe have fundamentally changed access to food and necessities. Prescription drug and nutrition programs need immediate changes, including an expansion to allow for 90-day supplies of critical medication, to make sure that people with disabilities have the food and medicine that they need in time of crisis. Furthermore, when individuals with disabilities are diagnosed with COVID-19, it is important they can return home when they no longer require hospitalization. In New York, for example. “developmentally disabled patients with the novel coronavirus are remaining in local hospitals past the point of medical necessity because the residential programs that care for them are not equipped to bring them home safely.” Rep. Debbie Dingell in the House and Sen. Bob Casey currently are working on a new legislative package that would direct additional financial resources to a range of agencies, including safety net programs that provide direct support and food security for people with disabilities.
- Ensuring Digital Accessibility and Supports for Students with Disabilities as Schools Embrace Online Learning. Teachers and parents, as well as students with and without disabilities, are having to adjust to learning from home as schools are being shut down for the foreseeable future. Teachers and special educators are facing significant challenges around how to provide a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities when you can only connect through a computer screen. As such, some versions of the stimulus packages have included waivers from the explicit requirements of laws such as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For special education advocates, waiving these requirements for any length of time would be a catastrophic blow against the rights of students with disabilities. Disability rights groups already are fighting hard against these proposals and working to find better solutions. Likewise, Reps. Angie Craig, Pete Stauber, and Jared Huffman have sent a bipartisan letter to leadership calling for full federal funding to support special education at this critical time.
- Investment in Workforce Development System to Ensure Skills, Retraining and Success for Jobseekers with and without Disabilities. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, more and more Americans are experiencing the economic consequences of these unprecedented events. As such, the nation’s workforce development system needs further investment by Congress to ensure that it is equipped and ready to retrain laid off workers, connect disclosed workers to new opportunities and meet the unique needs of jobseekers with disabilities. The nation’s workforce development system, guided by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), stands ready to meet the needs of workers with and without disabilities caught up in this crisis. However, if the economists are right about the massive scope of impending job losses due to COVID-19, then the workforce system is going to need more funding from Congress.
- Ensure Equal Healthcare Priority for People with Disabilities. As the crisis intensified in Italy, the government response to the strain on the healthcare system was to systematically ration healthcare away from people with disabilities. This approach is already illegal under American law, but it still happens, nonetheless. In this time of crisis, the U.S. Departments of Health & Human Services and Justice, collectively responsible for safeguarding the rights of people with disabilities under the law, need to send a clear reminder to hospitals, reminding them to treat people with disabilities equally. More recently, leaders at Self Advocates in Leadership (SAIL), Disability Rights Washington (DRW), and The Arc of the United States (The Arc) already have filed a formal complaint against the Washington Department of Health and the Northwest Healthcare Regional Network’s rationing plans. More such plans and lawsuits are likely as the crisis continues.
As discussions continue in the Senate, organizations across the disability community are stepping up and activating their members to make disability issues a clear priority. Among many others, Access Living, National Down Syndrome Advocacy Coalition, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities have developed and distributed online calls-to-action that can be shared widely.
If you would like to know more about how COVID-19 is impacting the disability community, we encourage you to review and make use of the following resources and materials: