A year after the pandemic began, people with disabilities finally can obtain the tools and assistance they need to earn a living and stay independent.
The American Rescue Plan, recently passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden, allocates $12.7 billion for what’s known as home and community-based services, or HCBS, through 2021. This is truly something to celebrate — finally dedicated funding to support people with disabilities who want to get back to work.
HCBS is an important source to keep people with disabilities at home, in their communities and out of costly nursing homes or group living setting, where we now know COVID-19 thrives. And it provides a critical lifeline to employment.
Many people with disabilities have said for years that they could work if they were given the needed accommodations. Now that conversation, which largely went unaddressed, is a reality.
For example, HCBS pays for internet and assistive technology, allowing people with disabilities to work from home. It provides transportation upgrades, including adaptions to vehicles, so they can drive to work. It pays for job coaches who accompany people with more significant disabilities to their jobs to ensure they are able to fulfill their responsibilities.
And, critically important, it funds personal care attendants who help with bathing and dressing. They also cook meals, can do light housekeeping and otherwise get their client set up for the day.
People can’t work if they can’t get out of bed. Home aides give those with disabilities a way to be productive, live independently and earn a living. This is important not only because we all want and need a purpose to our lives, but also because it helps our nation’s economy, especially now.
Job losses severe in pandemic
People with disabilities should be sought-after employees. They understand how to work through challenges because they face adversity every single day. Ask anyone with a disability and they will tell you this creates an incredible motivation.
Instead, they are always the last hired and the first fired when workforces constrict, and COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem. More than 1 million people with disabilities have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
HCBS funding can narrow the gap between people with and without disabilities in the workforce. It not only levels the playing field, it also returns money to the federal government through employee taxes. It is one of the most cost-effective investments our nation can make as the economy recovers.
Additional steps are needed
While we see HCBS funding as a great win, more needs to happen to provide equity for people with disabilities. Some states took much too long to establish timetables on when people with disabilities could access vaccines, and they continue to worry about being on the losing end of health care rationing. Both issues are deadly serious for people with disabilities and must be addressed.
COVID-19 or not, an increase in HCBS funding is long overdue and should go beyond the one-year limit included in the American Rescue Plan. This is a lifechanging program for people with disabilities who are tired of being left behind.
Judith Heumann is a disability rights activist. Tom Ridge was the first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and chairman of the National Organization on Disability.