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Lawmakers seek Wi-Fi for people with developmental disabilities in state-run homes

Karen DeWitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent
Doug Hovey with Independent Living Inc. (front) speaks of the need for Wi-Fi service in state-run homes for New Yorkers with disabilities.

Several state senators and assemblymembers say they were surprised to learn that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration does not provide internet access to people living in state-run group homes and other congregant settings -- and they want that fixed immediately.

Sen. James Skoufis, chair of the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, said two of his constituents alerted him to the lack of Wi-Fi at the homes. Phil and Maryann Smith’s daughter Michelle, who has a disability, was living at a state-run home when the COVID-19 pandemic started last March. They were not allowed to visit her and she had no internet access to visit them virtually.

Skoufis said he was shocked to learn that no facility operated by the state’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) provides broadband access for residents.

“These residents have been as isolated as ever before. Many have not been able to see their parents, their families at all,” said Skoufis, who added that the residents have also not been able to access needed telemedicine. “It is unthinkable that OPWDD has not provided internet to the thousands of residents that they’re supposed to service and care for.”

Skoufis said the Smiths could not attend the news conference held outside OPWDD headquarters in Albany because they decided to take their daughter out of the home and care for her full time, and she is unable to travel.

Skoufis said he had two meetings with the agency’s officials and they told him the state was unwilling to pay the estimated $900,000 it would cost to hook up everyone with internet. He said that cost is a “miniscule” amount in the state’s $190 billion budget, but he said the state officials didn’t see it that way.

“And they actually compared it to (the state) having to purchase HBO and special channels on the TVs if the residents wanted to see these types of channels,” Skoufis said.

He said he was also told that because of security concerns, the residents could not share the Wi-Fi provided free of charge to employees at the homes.

Sen. Samra Brouck, chair of the Senate’s Mental Health Committee, said the pandemic has laid bare already existing inequities in New York’s and the nation’s social infrastructure. She said some residents and their families can’t afford the hundreds of dollars it would cost to contract with an internet provider directly to get the service.

“I’m aware of the incredible toll that this pandemic and the isolation and the physical distancing has taken on people’s mental health,” Brouck said.

Doug Hovey, president of Independent Living Inc., which advocates for people with disabilities, said the failure to provide internet access may be a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“Title 2 of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that state and municipal governments, state and local governments, provide universal access to accessibility features,” Hovey said. “Communication is no exception to that law.” 

Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment.

Skoufis said if there’s no resolution soon, he will introduce a bill that would mandate the internet access be provided. The chair of the Assembly’s Committee on People with Disabilities, Tom Abinanti, backs the measure.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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