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Disabilities Beat: How will the NYS budget impact housing, employment, transportation?

A visually impaired Black person uses a safety rail to guide themself onto a bus. They are wearing a work uniform, head wrap, and prescription glasses. The scene is set at a sheltered bus stop next to a streetlight with a push button and a posted schedule for the bus line. Skyscrapers and evergreen trees fill the background, with the overall illustration set in tones of pink, purple, and teal, while warm, yellow lighting highlights the bus interior.
Sherm for Disabled And Here
A stock graphic from Disabled and Here of a disabled person getting on the bus to go to work.

For many people with disabilities, laws and funding have been instrumental in ensuring equitable access to housing, transportation and employment. On this week’s Disabilities Beat, we feature part of a recently aired one hour special on the New York State Budget,which you can hear the entirety of by clicking here. Two experts from our panel explain what we know about how the budget will impact housing, transportation and employment for New Yorkers with disabilities.

In this episode, we share part of a longer interview with experts from the disability community. WBFO's Emyle Watkins talks with Todd Vaarwerk and Stephanie Orlando from Western New York Independent Living about how the New York State budget will impact people with disabilities.

They discuss how the NYS budget includes funding towards housing specifically for people with mental health conditions. $43 million will be going to supportive housing units, according to the Division of the Budget.Stephanie and Todd highlight the importance of affordable, accessible, and integrated housing for people with mental health conditions. Todd and Stephanie also explain that finding housing for people with disabilities is still difficult, especially if you are not eligible for certain programs, or if you have multiple disabilities and are helped by multiple state agencies.

Emyle, Todd and Stephanie also discuss New York's plans to fund "Employment First" policies. The governor will prioritize an “Employment First” approach for the disability community with a $6.7 million in the budget. Todd said that: “Employment First is meant on a state level to prioritize the ability of people with disabilities to get competitive integrated employment. This is the first time it's mentioned in the budget, in terms of a budget line and a major governmental initiative.” Todd explains that more work still needs to be done to ensure people with disabilities still have as much choice in where they work as people without disabilities. Todd explains that we still do not know how this money will be used towards employment initiatives. The state now has to decide and plan that out fully.

Emyle and Todd also discuss why there are no major changes in this budget to paratransit. Upstate transit systems will get $323 million, but we saw no major changes to paratransit funding. Todd explains that advocates expect changes to paratransit funding in next year's budget after a study on the cost of expansion is complete. 


Emyle Watkins: Hi, I'm Emyle Watkins, and this is the WBFO Disabilities Beat. This month, we're sharing highlights from the recently passed New York State Budget for 2024 to 2025. This week we break down how parts of the budget will impact housing, transportation and employment for people with disabilities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. However, we have the entire roundtable discussion this is from, which includes more perspectives and additional aspects of the budget, on our website at wbfo.org.

Emyle Watkins: First, I want to introduce Todd Vaarwerk. Todd, can you tell us a little bit about who you are?

Todd Vaarwerk: Well, I'm the Chief Policy Officer at Western New York Independent Living. I'm a person with a developmental disability who's worked in the independent living field for 30 years.

Emyle Watkins: And Stephanie, you also work at Western New York Independent Living. Tell us a little bit about you.

Stephanie Orlando: Hi. I'm a person with multiple disabilities and I am the Chief Operations Officer.

Emyle Watkins: And tell us a little bit more about Western New York Independent Living as well.

Stephanie Orlando: We are a family of agencies including three independent living centers which support people with disabilities in living a full inclusive life in the community.

Emyle Watkins: I noticed that $43 million will be going to supportive housing units for people with mental health conditions. Stephanie, I know that Western New York Independent Living works a lot with people with mental health conditions in making sure that they have the resources they need to succeed. What have you been hearing about how this might impact people?

Stephanie Orlando: Well, I think it is needed. We have such a lack of affordable, accessible, integrated housing and for this population it's only a portion of our disability community, but absolutely important to have. And the thing that really stands out for this is that it includes single room occupancy and being able to get housing in non-licensed Office of Mental Health facilities. So that means you can get assistance to get an apartment in the community where maybe you would be in a building with other people that don't have disabilities or mental health conditions. So that's really important, to remain integrated in part of society where we're not segregated into specific housing settings, but have access to housing and the supports we need in those housing settings.

Emyle Watkins: Todd and Stephanie, obviously WNYIL does a lot of work to help people with housing, getting connected to housing. What are the issues that currently exist right now? Do we see any other ways the budget is helping remedy those issues?

Todd Vaarwerk: Well, remember that this is part of a larger, a much larger, push on housing that came out of the Governor's State of the State address. And while we're addressing people who are served by Office of Mental Health and what we refer to as an “o-agency”, right, we're dealing with people that are being served by the o-agencies, but the people that aren't are still in a housing crisis problem with not being able to get accessible housing because locally all of it's being used and the housing that you can get is definitely priced out of somebody who doesn't already have a housing support like a federal housing choice voucher or something from one of the state waivers.

So like we can say in a lot of areas of the budget, this is a very good initial investment in the most persistently homeless population that the state says they deal with. But we can't just let it be the only step. So we are advocating with local politicians to talk about the general housing plan, including provisions for accessible housing, so that there's accessible housing to be able to use the money that they're putting aside in this program.

Emyle Watkins: And just to clarify for our listeners, those o-agencies are the Office of Mental Health and the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities or as we call it OPWDD.

Todd Vaarwerk: And the other one, the Office of Alcohol –

Stephanie Orlando: – Addiction Services and Supports.

Todd Vaarwerk: Addiction Services and Supports.

Stephanie Orlando: Yeah, they changed their name not too long ago.

Emyle Watkins: So the o-agencies, but obviously not everyone with a disability is served by an o-agency.

Todd Vaarwerk: Correct.

Stephanie Orlando: And some it becomes a barrier of who's the primary, who's taking the lead. And so let's say you have multiple disabilities and are served by both agencies. Sometimes that could be difficult in getting services at all because it's a lot of finger pointing going on.

Emyle Watkins: And housing was one major part of the budget, but I know that employment was another major highlight for the Governor. And New York said that they are becoming a quote, "Employment First” state for the disability community and have contributed $6.7 million in the budget for that. Todd, tell us a little bit about what that means for the community.

Todd Vaarwerk: Well, Employment First is meant on a state level to prioritize the ability of people with disabilities to get competitive integrated employment. This is the first time it's mentioned in the budget in terms of a budget line and a major governmental initiative. But Employment First has been around for a while and hopefully with the amount of money they've placed toward it and the amount of planning they're going to need to use to spend the money, we're going to get some more substantive results in being able to improve employment outcomes because while we've been saying Employment First for a whole bunch of years, we really haven't been building that into corporate jobs beyond entry level, maybe maintenance jobs or jobs in government.

So we're hoping that this model can build into something where there's a genuine choice of jobs, especially since we're now in a deficit for hiring folks. Everybody's looking for people to fill a job. People with disabilities are great for that. So here's again, the government making a good first investment to say, all right, if we have all these jobs that need to be filled, let's put some money behind making sure that people with disabilities can get an equal shot at them.

Emyle Watkins: And do we know how that money will be used to achieve that?

Todd Vaarwerk: Not yet. Budget language has to lead to regulatory language before we realize how they're going to spend the money.

Emyle Watkins: And this year we saw $323 million allocated to upstate New York transit systems, but no word on any major changes to paratransit.

Todd Vaarwerk: Now there's a reason for that, because in last year's budget, or sorry in the 2022 budget, they placed three quarters of a million dollars into a fund for a study to be done by an upstate transit authority about the cost of expansion for paratransit and they gave the money to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority who is currently pursuing the study. The study is supposed to be done by October of 2024. So with regard to the next budget, we should be able to have a number that's workable and professionally and peer researched so that we can go back and say all right, for the upstate transit authorities separate from the MTA and everything that they do because upstate transit is funded differently than downstate transit is. Being able to have a number allows us to get into that conversation about how much paratransit expansion the state can afford.

I don't think that it was a failure of the governor's part to consider that, more than I just think that they're waiting for results. Now that having been said, as we move forward we know that the major guy that pushed the study, Tim Kennedy, just won a position in Congress and one of the things that will be leveraging hopefully from his office is continued commitment on the federal side to bring in some money that the state could then match. So if they say that expansion in the region for paratransit is $20 million, well then we can ask the Feds for $10 million and then only have to worry about the NFTA matching another $10 million, potentially, with state allocation.

Emyle Watkins: You can listen to the Disabilities Beat segment on demand, view a transcript and plain language description for every episode on our website at wbfo.org. I'm Emyle Watkins, thanks for listening.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.