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Lawmakers Say N.Y. Should Pay For WiFi For People With Disabilities In State-Run Homes

Internet Broadband cable
Jorge Guillen

Several state Senators and Assembly members say they were surprised to learn that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration does not provide internet access to people living in state run groups homes and other congregant settings, and they want that fixed immediately.

Senator James Skoufis, the chair of the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, said two of his constituents alerted him to the lack of Wi-Fi at the state-run group 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 with them virtually. Skoufis said he was shocked to learn that no facility operated by the state’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, or 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 said the residents have also 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."

Senator Skoufis said the Smiths could not attend the press conference held outside the 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 everyone up with the internet. He said that cost is a “miniscule” amount in the state’s $190 billion dollar 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 TV if the residents wanted to see these types of channels,” Skoufis said.

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

Senator Samra Brouck, chair of the 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 provide service to them.

“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 access to the internet may be a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

“Title 2 of the Americans with Disability Act requires that 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.

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

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.