Candidates discuss six top issues facing the disability community

  • Samuel Habib, a college student and disability advocate, interviewed the top candidates for governor and congress about six main issues that affect the disability community prior to the Nov. 3 election. —Courtesy

  • Samuel Habib, a college student and disability advocate, interviewed the top candidates for governor and congress about six main issues that affect the disability community prior to the Nov. 3 election. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/24/2020 6:57:26 PM

With all the talk about the coronavirus and its impact on the economy, not every issue that affects voters is getting equal attention this election cycle.

Samuel Habib, a college student, filmmaker, newspaper columnist, and disability advocate, interviewed the top candidates for governor and congress about six main issues that affect the disability community, an estimated 12% of Granite Staters.

Habib, who has cerebral palsy, interviewed the candidates this month to see where they fell on six main issues including the budget, healthcare and medical rationing, special education, employment, housing policy, and voting rights.

Here are the highlights from the gubernatorial race between Dan Feltes, the Democratic nominee, and Chris Sununu, the Republican incumbent:

Medical rationing

There was little disagreement that COVID-19 has placed an immense amount of stress on the county’s healthcare system.

States, including New Hampshire, created guidelines for rationing medical care should it become necessary. The guidelines stipulate that “rationing should NOT be based on the following: age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability, citizenship, ability to pay, or religion.”

However, disability rights advocates have argued that the guidelines do not provide enough oversight for each hospital’s plan to dole out resources, which leaves disabled residents vulnerable to discrimination.

The Disability Rights Center, along with 29 other organizations, sent a letter to Lori Shibinette, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, in early August asking for four changes to the plan.

Both Sununu and Feltes emphasized the need for avoiding a situation of medical rationing in the first place.

“I’ve refused to accept the proposition that this needs to happen,” Feltes said. “And we need to do everything in our power to prevent that from happening.”

Sununu said making sure the hospitals have enough funding to operate is imperative to avoid rationing. Hospitals in New Hampshire have lost millions due to the pandemic. He said the state put in about $100 million dollars to hospitals and other healthcare providers. The federal government has put in an additional $300 million into the state’s healthcare providers.

Employment

Of the 83,940 adults with disabilities in the state, about 42% are employed, compared to a national employment rate of about 82% for those without disabilities, according to the 2019 Report on Disability in New Hampshire from the University of New Hampshire.

Sununu said investing in and expanding vocational education programs in the state is one way to help young people with developmental disabilities enter the workforce. He said the state provided a half million dollars towards these programs to keep them running.

“I’ve seen the opportunities it provides those kids and I’ve hired those kids myself,” he said. “In my previous job, when I ran Waterville Valley Resort, we hired a lot of those kids out of Project Impact and those types of programs.”

In addition to funding vocational training programs, Feltes said, if elected, he would ensure the programs actively reach out to the disability community to participate in the program and partner with transportation services to make sure they had a way to get there.

Additionally, he said he would prioritize paid family medical leave, which provides weeks of paid time off for those caring for a sick loved one. Sununu vetoed family medical leave bills with similar propositions twice, calling it an income tax.

“Any family member who needs to spend time with a child or a loved one caretaking or otherwise...they (shouldn’t) have to choose between work and family,” Feltes said.

Voting accessibility

This summer, several disability advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging the absentee voting process was inaccessible. In response, Sununu allocated $30,000 of CARES Act funding towards making absentee voting more accessible with the help of a nonprofit, VotingWorks.

Sununu said the state is making an appeal to the federal government to use funds from the Help America Vote Act for local election equipment.

“There’s millions of dollars, frankly,” he said. “We’re not fundamentally changing our system, we’re just allowing some of the logistic barriers that sometimes prevent folks with disabilities from voting to actually break down those barriers and have that opportunity.”

Feltes said he supports using HAVA money for this purpose.

Developmental disability waiting list

Until the age of 21, those with disabilities are able to receive services, like transportation to appointments, day programs and at-home respite, through their school district.

However, the day they turn 21, these services are transitioned over to the adult developmental disabilities system, for which there has historically been a lengthy waitlist. In recent years the waitlist has been reduced and at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, there was no one waiting for services.

Feltes said he would commit to protecting funds for developmental disability services so a new waiting list is not created.

Sununu said his administration worked hard to get the funding to bring the waiting list down to zero but the pandemic threatens to reverse some of that progress. When COVID-19 hit New Hampshire, some of the agencies providing services shut their doors.

He said keeping the waiting list at zero is a top priority for his administration.

“Don’t take it for granted,” he said. “Just because we got it down to zero once doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to stay zero forever. You have to keep working at it.”

Housing

The Granite State has dealt with a scarcity of affordable housing for years. The 2020 Residential Rental Cost Survey Report found a “high demand for apartments, a tight supply, and a low vacancy rate, making it a challenging market for New Hampshire renters.”

It can be even more difficult for those living with disabilities who need additional accessibility in their housing.

Feltes suggested creating inclusionary zoning on the state level, which gives incentives to private developers to offer a certain number of units below market rate.

He said organizations like New Hampshire Legal Assistance, where Feltes used to work, should also be fully funded to further help those with disabilities.

“Right now, they have a backlog of cases, including cases with respect to folks with disabilities,” he said.

Sununu said investment in businesses will bolster the economy and improve housing in communities.

“When we focus on businesses and we allow those businesses to grow and we get out of their way with regulation, they want to come here, they grow, the economy does well,” he said. “The state brings in more revenue and then we don’t just spend it on  ourselves, we then go out and share it.”

To watch all of the Diability Unscripted 2020 interviews, click here.




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