An exciting development for New Yorkers with disabilities

By Douglas J. Usiak, February 26, 2022

If you are seeking the insightful words of Sarah Lanzo today, I hope that you will not be too disappointed. She has moved on to brighter and more adventurous opportunities and has handed the "Independent Living" column writing baton to me, Doug Usiak.

You would probably be well justified in asking, “Who is this Usiak guy?” Well, I am a long time Western New Yorker with family in Niagara and Erie counties. Grew up in the Tonawandas, did time in the U.S. Army, went to college at Buffalo State, and have spent my entire adult life working for the rights of people with disabilities.

As the CEO of Independent Living of Niagara County (ILNC), I am grateful for this opportunity to share my concerns, knowledge, and reactions to what is happening for, about, and with, people with disabilities, and hopefully proving to be every bit as much of a perceptive and cynical wiseacre as Sarah — and loving it!

This past month, I had the pleasure to be invited to the Governor of New York’s signing of a bill that created the position of Chief Disability Officer for the state. In my opinion, Governor Kathy Hochul took one of the boldest steps for the protections of residents with disabilities in decades on February 14th, when she also announced the naming of the Empire State’s first Chief Disability Officer (CDO)! The CDO will hold the primary centralized office to protect the rights of the state’s citizens with disabilities since the authority of the Governor Mario Cuomo-created Office of the Advocate for People with Disabilities was subdivided and then eliminated entirely by the administrations of Cuomo's successors.

Hochul introduced former state Assembly staffer Kimberly T. Hill, a wheelchair user, as her appointee for CDO. This position will have a direct line to the Governor on issues faced by people with disabilities. Their needs, concerns and issues about affordable and accessible housing, transportation, employment, healthcare and that all-important transition from institutional care into their communities of choice, to mention a few, now will be represented at the proverbial table.

What made this exciting was that that Hochul chose to sign the bill and introduce the new CDO at a sister Center for Independent Living, The Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley in Troy. To me this was a strong symbolic gesture, announcing to all that an Independent Living Center is where the “dis” is taken out of disability.

In her introduction, Hochul noted that only 35% of the state’s people with disabilities from age 18 to 64 were employed, ranking New York as 38th out of the 50 states, with about 30% of these citizens living below the poverty line. Tackling these issues and the pursuing of a more diverse, inclusive and equitable New York will be a priority for the new CDO and her “well-resourced office.”

I must admit to some déjà vu, as I had sat in the East Lawn of the White House in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — but feel that our event was equally important for the Empire State’s citizens. While the ADA provides a framework that established the rights for people with disabilities, this Office for the Chief Disability Officer will ensure that legislation, policy, and regulations not only follow the ADA, but embrace it.

With this milestone event, it is now up to us people with disabilities to show our value as participating members of our society. While we live in our homes and work in the community, we need to engage others as equal, responsible and contributing citizens of the state as well as our country.

Douglas J. Usiak is the chief executive officer of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. family of agencies. Independent Living empowers individuals with disabilities to gain the information and resources needed to improve their quality of life and participate in society on an equal basis. For more information about its services and programs, call 716-284-4131, extension 200.