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COVID-19 and the unique challenges facing people with disabilities

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COVID-19 has meant some difficult times for a lot of people, but those living with disabilities have been facing unique challenges.

A WXXI live forum on the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities aired Thursday night on WXXI TV and radio. The virtual forum featured interviews with people who have disabilities or who are working with those with disabilities.

Stephanie Woodward, a local attorney and disability rights advocate, said the pandemic has led to better use of technology since so many people are working from home. But, she said it also highlights something people with disabilities have been saying for some time.

"With this pandemic we’ve seen employers accommodate everybody in order to allow people to continue to work from home in order to have access to different technology to keep the economy going," Woodward said. "This is something that could have been offered to employees with disabilities before the pandemic and it was said that it was too hard, and now it’s second nature to everybody.”

Woodward said it’s important that people with disabilities are included in any discussion of what can be done to improve health care and other options for people with disabilities, so that they can part of any positive change.

Also on the panel Thursday night was Jeiri Flores, a disability advocate, who said she had just been recovering from pneumonia when the pandemic began. She is fearful about her treatment options if she ever does get infected by COVID-19.

"It was really hard to be in an emergency room, to get the treatment for pneumonia, and just to really feel like you’re at your wits end, and it was just pneumonia," Flores said. "So then I couldn’t imagine what the next step of that would be like."

Jerri Lynn Sparks has been advocating on behalf of her son, who has autism and lives in a group home. She said the state did not handle the closure of those facilities in a consistent way during the pandemic.

"The lack of inclusion for group homes in any phase of reopening, yet, the spray parks were open, jail inmates were set free the lack of inclusion for families to see their children and to have decision making," Sparks said, noting the way certain facilties were allowed to reopen "We are essential caregivers , and we were not treated that way, we were treated as visitors in our own children’s lives."

The state has recently begun to allow more visitation for families who have loved ones living in group homes. 

Malik Paris, a deaf actor and artist who is an alumnus of RIT and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, said the fact so many people wear masks now can make it difficult for people who are deaf to get needed information.

“A lot of hearing people, for example, are wearing masks because of the pandemic, and it’s really hard for us to read their lips or read what their facial expressions are doing, so we’re missing a lot of information trying to assume what’s being said so that does pose a challenge to us,” Paris said.

He is hoping that more people will use clear masks, which can make it easier for them to communicate information to people who are deaf.

James Branciforte, president and CEO of Lifetime Assistance, an organization which tries to break down barriers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said that facilities in this part of New York state have not faced as many problems as some of the group homes and other facilities have been dealing with in the downstate area.

"We, upstate, have really handled the susceptibility of people with disabilities to the COVID positive -- the viral transfer, if you will -- much, much better than the large population centers,” Branciforte said.

He also credits advocates for people with disabilities, including family members, for helping to spur positive changes in terms of things like opening up visitation in recent weeks.

This story is part of Move to Include, an initiative that uses the power of public media to inform and transform attitudes and behaviors about inclusion. Move to Include was founded by WXXI and the Golisano Foundation and expanded with a grant by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.