CDR Calls on Governor Hochul to Reinstate the Office of the Advocate

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The Center for Disability Rights Calls on Governor Hochul to Hire a Chief Disability Officer and Sign A. 3130/S. 1836 Into Law, Reinstating the Office of the Advocate for People With Disabilities 

The legislation, which passed both houses unanimously, now awaits Governor Hochul’s signature.

Rochester, NY – On Monday, May 24, 2021, the New York State Assembly and New York State Senate unanimously passed bills A.3130 (Steck) / S.1836 (Skoufis), to reinstate the Office of the Advocate for People with Disabilities.

Originally established by Governor Mario Cuomo through Executive Order, the Office of the Advocate was intended to provide a formal voice within state government for New Yorkers with disabilities. The Office helped develop policies to ensure the state met the access needs of people with disabilities, and also served as the state’s coordinator for the implementation of Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. 

When a previous administration created the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs and consolidated the state offices, the vital policy and advocacy function that the Office of the Advocate provided did not survive. While there are state agencies that address individuals with specific diagnoses, there is no state agency charged with meeting the needs of the Disability Community at a systemic level. Large segments of the Disability Community are left without a state agency addressing their needs and representing their interests in state government.

“There is no state agency representing the needs of people with disabilities,” said Bruce Darling, President/CEO of the Center for Disability Rights and a public member of the state’s Most Integrated Setting Coordinating Council. “With no state agency responsible for performing this function, it just doesn’t get done.”

A.3130/S.1836 gives disabled people representation in state government. The Office of the Advocate will serve as the state’s coordinator for the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), coordinate state activities to ensure that state programs do not discriminate against and are accessible to people with disabilities and ensure that such programs provide services to people with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate. Additionally, the Office of the Advocate for People with Disabilities will review proposed legislation and regulations to determine their impact on people with disabilities.

Similar legislation passed in 2019, but was vetoed by Governor Cuomo. This year, legislators in both houses voted unanimously to ensure people with disabilities are represented in state government.

An Office of the Advocate in place prior to the pandemic could have helped the state mitigate access issues by streamlining ADA implementation and ensuring disabled New Yorkers had access to critical information, programs and services. For example, Deaf people needed to sue the state to secure sign language interpretation during the previous Governor’s daily pressers. Blind people had no recourse when access issues with the state’s vaccination website prevented them from using it, and other people noted there was no process to request a reasonable accommodation for being vaccinated.

Access issues have persisted. Despite settling the case regarding access to the Governor’s briefings, state webinars educating people about COVID-19 and the vaccine were inaccessible to Deaf people. “The Office of the Advocate will immediately ameliorate these problems and close the communication gap between people with disabilities and government officials,” said Zach Garafalo, Manager of Government Affairs at the Center for Disability Rights.

As a member of the state’s Most Integrated Setting Coordinating Council, Mr. Darling tried advancing proposals that would have helped reduce the death toll in the state’s nursing facilities and improved equitable access to the vaccine, but the proposals were ignored.  Mr. Darling highlights the Cuomo administration’s failure to implement its own 2013 plan to reduce the long-stay nursing facility population by 10% over five years as further evidence that Governor Hochul needs to make significant changes.

“Long before the pandemic struck, the state was failing thousands of institutionalized individuals.  Those were not just people we could have freed from unwanted institutionalization,” said Darling. “Some were people we could have saved from the pandemic if our state had just followed its own plan. Governor Hochul needs to show leadership by reinstating the Office of the Advocate and work with disability rights advocates to save Disabled lives.”

“Connecting New York’s Disability Community to Governor Hochul’s administration is one of the most urgent issues of our time,” added Garafalo.  “The new normal includes the pandemic, severe weather events, natural disasters and other emerging threats. All of these events disproportionately impact people with disabilities, particularly Disabled individuals in BIPOC communities. New Yorkers with disabilities must be active participants in planning for and evaluating responses to disasters.”

The Center points out that September is National Preparedness Month and that, by signing this bill and hiring a Chief Disability Officer to lead the Office, Governor Hochul can champion inclusive emergency preparedness and demonstrate that she and her administration value the voices – and lives – of New Yorkers with Disabilities.

Rochester, NY (September 9, 2021)