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Officials Prepping Legislative Agenda to Aid New Yorkers With Disabilities

New York’s Chief Disability Officer Kimberly Hill Ridley has been busy since the office was created nearly two years ago.

The office within the Executive Chamber helps connect New Yorkers with disabilities – especially people with physical or sensory disorders – to resources to secure employment, housing, emergency preparation and home care, among others.

“If you’re a person with a physical disability or any type of sensory disability, there really is no go-to point in New York for those individuals,” Chief Disability Officer Kimberly Hill Ridley said Friday. “Our office solidly represents that group of people.”

Hill Ridley said the office has held more than 2,000 meetings with organizations and stakeholders that work with people with disabilities New York, focusing most improving the unemployment rate among New Yorkers with disabilities since the office was created in February 2022. Hill Ridley meets regularly, typically at least biweekly, with Gov. Kathy Hochul about what New Yorkers with disabilities’ most urgent needs.

“Every person with a disability has a different story, and therefore, different priorities as to where they’re at at that point in time,” she said.

Sunday marked International People with Disabilities Day, or a day to raise awareness about disability issues and combatting their related stigma.

Former president and New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only disabled person to be elected to either of those offices. His wheelchair is on display on the first floor of New York’s Executive Mansion in Albany.

Nearly eight decades later, the Office of the Chief Disability Officer was created within the governor’s office under a new law. The office has nine fulltime employees, representing most types of disabled groups in the Executive Chamber.

Specific proposals for next year will be finalized in the coming weeks as Gov. Hochul prepares the executive budget, which the governor sets each January. Hill Ridley said improving housing, transportation and home and health care access for disabled New Yorkers rank among the administration’s top priorities.

“These are all things that need to be addressed, whether it be in this year’s budget or future budgets,” she said. “They’re going to continue to be a priority for us.”

Hill Ridley, who is in a wheelchair, said the state office gives New Yorkers with disabilities more representation in state government.

“A good part of the reason that I’m in this position is because not only do I have 25 years of disability advocacy experience, but I live it every day,” she said. “I don’t get to walk away from it at the end of the day.”

She says the office will advocate for improving the workforce shortage, but the work will take time.

“We’re taking baby steps in addressing the workforce crisis,” she added.

Advocates and lawmakers agree the next budget must increase wages and better staffing are the top priorities New Yorkers with disabilities need.

They’ve started their campaign last month pushing Hochul to include a 3.2% Cost of Living Adjustment pay increase for workers in the budget, and boost salaries of direct support professionals, or workers in group homes, by $4,000.

“We have staff taking care of these people making $16 an hour – that’s unacceptable,” said Kevin Horrigan, associate vice president of public affairs of nonprofit People’s Inc. “Our staff used to make $4 more an hour than minimum wage. Now, we can’t even keep up with minimum wage.”

Senate Disabilities Committee chair John Mannion carries the bill to increase worker salaries $4,000 to help recruit and retain employees.

He says he’ll also fight to expand the ombudsman program to provide oversight of caregivers for people with developmental disabilities, and mandate the state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities create a staffing plan for workforce emergencies, or vacancies over 10%.

“We want to make sure that if faced with staffing challenges, that there is a plan so that we don’t reduce services unnecessarily,” the senator said.

Horrigan said providers have an average 17% vacancy rate across the state, and a turnover rate of 30%.

“We need to make sure that we keep our homes open so we can provide services to New York state’s most vulnerable people,” Horrigan said.

The last three budgets included pay increases for behavioral health workers, but less than the pace of rising inflation. As group homes face closure across the state, Mannion said the industry needs more support.

He and advocates want to tie the pay of direct support professionals to inflation, and avoid a fight for fair pay each year.

“It is a challenge – it is a challenge,” Mannion said. “But it will be a part of the discussion.”

Mannion carries legislation the Senate Disabilities Committee will prioritize next session, including proposals to establish a housing navigation services program for people with a disability, and expand the independent developmental disability ombudsman program included in this year’s budget.

Source: Spectrumlocalnews

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