Navigating New York state government can be difficult, and for people with disabilities, a major challenge. A bill that is heading to Gov. Kathy Hochul's desk aims to change that.
For years, New York state had an Office of the Advocate for People with Disabilities — a guide to help cut through bureaucratic red tape. Gov. Andrew Cuomo abolished the office; state lawmakers like Assemblyman Phil Steck want to bring it back.
"The idea of the office is people would have one place to go where they would be set up with the services they require," said Steck, a Democrat who represents the Albany area.
Steck this year backed a measure meant to re-establish the office, first created under former Gov. Mario Cuomo. The office would cost about $1 million to set up, but Steck said its value for vulnerable people can't be measured.
"Services for people with disabilities are spread throughout a variety of state agencies which can be very difficult to navigate," Steck said.
The idea is the advocate office would connect people with disabilities to state services and programs — such as employment or housing — that can only be accessed from multiple state agencies.
"If no one knows about these lines or the availability of services, they won't know about them, and that's why we want to have this office reinstated," Steck said.
And during the pandemic, these programs can especially be a lifeline.
"Currently we have 3 million people with disabilities across New York state who have no representation in state government," said Zach Garafalo, the government affairs manager at the Center for Disaibility Rights.
The public health crisis laid bare the lack of access to state government people with disabilities had — especially those who were residents in nursing facilities at the start of the pandemic, he said.
"Fifteen thousand disabled New Yorkers — parents, brothers, veterans — died, because the Cuomo administration failed to engage the disability community," Garafalo said.