Each year, as we approach the April 1 deadline to have a budget in place for New York State, the Independent Living Centers (ILCs) across the state poll the people they work with to develop an agenda of issues that they would like to see to advance New York State’s efforts to make sure that people with disabilities have the opportunity to continue to live in their homes, work in our communities, and engage with our society at all levels of interests.

So, what is this Independent Living Center network, you might be asking.

Well, it’s the only statewide group of organizations whose business it is to reduce the pressures of the state, by returning the investment of the taxpayers via getting people with disabilities to contribute physically, economically and socially in our communities. ILCs across the state are community-based volunteer agencies that are run by, and for, people with any disability, of any age. Their interest is derived from people with disabilities that identify what will work based on peer philosophy and self-direction so that people with disabilities can become one with our society.

So, what are we hearing are the top five issues facing people with disabilities this year?

Here is what our sources are saying will be put before our state legislature and Governor:

— Address the home care crisis by increasing wages for home care workers to 150% of the state’s regional minimum wage, as outlined in the Fair Pay for Home Care Act.

While there has long been a personal care aide (PCA) shortage throughout the state, in the last few years, as wages have increased for entry-level positions like fast-food worker, finding PCAs has become an acute crisis from Long Island to Western New York. We advocates want citizens with disabilities to be able to live at home, reducing the cost of institutional care by providing more affordable in-home care, at a fraction of the cost.

— Repeal cuts to eligibility for Medicaid advanced during the Medicaid Redesign Team (MRT) II, making it more difficult for people to receive vital community-based long-term services and supports.

If the cuts are implemented as proposed, many who require lower-level Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs) such as cooking and cleaning to live independently, but not the more severe three activities of daily living, would no longer be Medicaid-eligible. This would put many people at risk of injury and hospitalization, eviction and institutionalization, but could be remedied, as laid out in A.6346 / S.328.

— Increase funding for Access to Home to $10 million to address pent up demand for this program, allowing all regions of the state to benefit. Access to Home is an important program that provides funding for home modifications, such as wheelchair ramps, allowing individuals with disabilities and older New Yorkers to stay out of costly institutions.

— Require counties to expand paratransit beyond Americans with Disabilities Act minimums.

Lack of accessible transportation services for people with disabilities often leads to unemployment, inability to access medical care, lack of access to voting sites, and isolation from friends, family and full community participation. The failure to expand paratransit services (curb-to-curb wheelchair-lift vans) throughout the state is a major contributor to this problem. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires counties to provide accessible paratransit service to disabled people who are unable to take the fixed route bus within three quarters of a mile of the closest bus stop. The state could increase the minimum service levels provided to people who rely on paratransit.

— Increase base funding for Independent Living Centers by $2 million to $18 million and incorporate a statutory cost-of-living adjustment to ensure funding keeps pace with the ever-rising cost of doing business.

The only statewide network of disability-led organizations, ILCs provide critically important services which help disabled New Yorkers to navigate the ever-changing service system to live independently in the community. Our own three-center-wide region (five dounties of upper WNY) has a return of $70 million after subtracting all in-home and agencies’ costs, enabling literally thousands of Western New Yorkers with disabilities to thrive and contribute to our communities.

Again, the point of enabling people with disabilities to live, work, play and pay in our communities is to ensure that our friends and families don’t have to live their lives in a warehouse for discarded people.

Douglas J. Usiak is the chief executive officer of Independent Living of Niagara County. He can be reached at 716-284-4131, ext. 200.

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