Independent Perspective In-Depth Episode 1

Guest:  Frank Cammarata

Topic:  Erie County Office for People with Disabilities

Duration:  28.42

Published:  March 9, 2021

Host:  Welcome to Independent Perspective In-depth, a program presented in the public interest by the Western New York Independent Living family of agencies, courtesy of the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service. Using this long format we will be exploring the broader issues affecting the community of people with disabilities in discussions with knowledgeable individuals from a variety of organizations and background. We're delighted to have as our guest for this inaugural program, Mr. Frank Cammarata, Executive Director of the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities. Sharing this microphone we are your hosts Jillian Moss and Ernie Churchwell. Welcome to the program Frank.

Guest:  Thank you very much Jillian and thank you very much Ernie for having me, it's quite an honor.

Host:  Our pleasure. Let's get started. Before you came to this position you already had a substantial track record of working with citizens with disabilities. Could you relate, where you gain this experience?

Guest:  Oh, sure. So before this position, I now have been, I'm working on my 10th year with the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities. But before that I worked for People Incorporated for 19 years. I started in their residential programs and worked my way through, working as an overnight person to working as a program manager of one of the local group homes and then from there, I went into the day programs, because the 24-7 when you're a program manager to a group home it's kind of difficult to be on 24-7 all the time. So, I decided I thought it might be a little better, to try to get into the day program so I ended my career in day programs as a assistant director of day programs for People Incorporated.

Host:  Awesome. As it was created in 1983, the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities, is one of the earliest local government agencies that was focused specifically on the needs of the disability community. However, I suspect that some of our listeners may not be fully aware of the work of ECOPD. What would you like us to know about your agency?

Guest:  Thank you for asking that question Jillian, it's an important one. I want to start by answering and letting everybody know that Erie County is one of the only six counties in all of New York State that has an Office for People with Disabilities. It has an office that specifically advocates for people with disabilities. And it's not just a single disability. It is for all people with all disabilities. We are actually the only county, keep in mind that there are 62 or 63 counties in New York State. But we're the only county actually west of New York City, that offers that that type of assistance. So, I think that it's a wonderful thing that the county has been providing since 1983. So, as the counties advocate for people with disabilities, we're here to ensure that services that are being provided by Erie County are equal, are being provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that equal access, equal opportunity is being ensured in all services throughout all of the departments. Part of my position is also ADA Coordinator, Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator, for the county. There are a few ADA Coordinators who are part of the county in the Department of Public Works in another one of the departments, but I serve as the ADA Coordinator, and obviously I've worked with all of the county departments to ensure that any of the development, any of the plans that are going through are being thought out to ensure that accessibility and equal access is being provided.

Host:  A major concern of everybody is the COVID-19 coronavirus with some aspect getting a mention on every newscast. Recently the death toll in this country has exceeded 500,000, more Americans than those who lost their lives in World Wars I and II and the Vietnam conflict combined, and many individuals with disabilities have pre existing conditions, putting them in the highest risk group after healthcare providers. This concern has been heightened by the revelations that nursing homes and long term care facilities have been super spreaders with many more deaths than had previously been reported. What are some initiatives that the ECOPD are working with the county on as it relates to the pandemic?

Guest:  So, I'm going to start by answering that question and stating that it's important to keep in mind that, unfortunately, we have had over 1600 of our county residents pass away from the COVID-19. And it's important for all of us to keep those people in mind, and to ensure that we still wear those masks, that we still are physically distancing, that we still limit the times, limit the opportunities that we're getting together with close friends and family members. We know how difficult it is, and we were very sorry but it will end. And I can tell you that vaccines are here, there are opportunities for people to get vaccines, the, the rollout was somewhat slow, but it is happening a lot faster. And please, if I can just say to people just please get the vaccine because the more of us to get that vaccine, the better it is for our community as a whole. So, in direct answer to that question Ernie, the County Executive has actually named me one of the people on his COVID Vaccine Task Force. I think that's a very important role that I'm playing because it ensures that people with disabilities have a voice in the vaccine distribution process. I worked with the county's Department of Health, as well as emergency management. One of the things that we recently, we've been working on for the past five weeks or so is ensuring people who receive services from OPWDD who live in congregate settings, we're making sure that those people are getting their vaccines. We have been providing closed pods or closed points of dispensing. Before this event happened, myself and others from Department of Health Emergency Management, we worked on creating points of dispensing or closed pods to assist and ensure that people with disabilities, people who would have difficulty accessing vaccines. We're working on making sure that we could get those people, those vaccines, in a specific location. And so we're working on closed pods, we were working on, I should say I've been working on or assisting when pod sites are being selected or have been selected. I'm making sure that those sites are accessible, and making sure that those sites, even though they're accessible making sure that as people go into those sites, making sure that they're also safe and well lit, making sure that, again, making sure that people with disabilities have that equal access and equal opportunity. We're also making sure that the accommodation process is being followed through with regard specifically with regard to the county vaccine distribution process. We've worked with a number of people who have had some difficulties with the state. The state distribution process. We've worked, we've reached out to the  representatives from New York State. Their vaccine, folks. And we've let them know about specific issues of access, of reasonable accommodations, and fortunately they've been able to fix those which has been good. Another important piece is that effective communication piece for anybody who has watched the County Executive doing his weekly, when he started he was doing almost three times a week, then he went down to two times a week, and now he's doing weekly press briefings. But, along with that, at that press briefing you'll notice that there is an ASL interpreter. One of my jobs is to ensure that effective communication through that ASL interpreter is being provided and making sure that people, people who are deaf, hard of hearing, again, have that equal access. So, it's all about my office has really for the past well, a year now has been there to make sure that people with disabilities have equal access to reasonable accommodations, to the vaccine, so we're very busy, Ernie. Very very busy.

Host:  We believe you! So Frank it's been barely a year since COVID-19 came onto our radar. ECOPD must have been working on many other initiatives at the time. Could you mention what you are seeking to do in these other realms?

Guest:  Sure, you know in what I like to say say slower times, Jillian, it's not really ever slower because throughout the year, we do a number of events, some of which, some of which Jillian, you participate with. Actually from the very beginning of the year, I kind of go through the calendar of the year, but the beginning of March we celebrate the, what used to be called Spread the Word to End the R Word. It is now called Spread the Word for Inclusion, you may see the sifn behind me. We do an event at the downtown Central Library every year to Spread the Word for Inclusion. We want to make people aware that we want people with disabilities involved in every aspects of life. So, this year, actually I should say last year, I believe it was March the fourth last year. That was actually the last onsite event that I had done. And this year, for the first time in 10 years we're doing a virtual event, at Spread the Word Inclusion WNY, so it's an opportunity for people with disabilities to sign our corkboard and let us know what what accessibility inclusion means to you. We also do non-driver ID events. We do this in collaboration with the county clerk's office, we do that twice a year. We do celebrate or we collaborate with with your organization, Western New York Independent Living on the annual July 26, ADA anniversary. Last year was the 30th anniversary, it was going to be a big celebration. Unfortunately we weren't able to celebrate in a big way. I know that we'll be having a Disability Pride planning meeting in the very near future, and I look forward to that. Getting on that planning group again. I know that we do during the month of October we celebrate Disability History Month. And during that we again utilize the downtown library, we offer an opportunity for the different agencies to come into the library and discuss the services that they provide. Each day of the week, we have a different agency that comes in, and they're able to take the service desk, and they're able to sit there and and speak to the general public about the services that they are provided. We maintain a webpage and a Facebook page, one of the things that I'm working on right now is called the Playground for All. And this is an inclusive playground that is going in at the Chestnut Ridge Park. And right now the Chestnut Ridge Conservancy is in the process of raising funds for this project. But I am working on again the accessibility piece, making sure that the playground that's going in, is accessible. But also inclusive for everybody. It's called a Playground for All because we want to make sure that everyone is able to participate. We want to make sure that the things that are going in, the playground pieces that are going in, we want to make sure that there is something there for everybody. We're making sure that the blind, visually impaired we're going to have a Braille wall there. We're going to have what I would call a teeter totters for people who utilize the mobility devices. There's going to be a jungle gym there and there's going to be so many great things. You'll hear about this in the news in the very near future, we'll be having opportunities for the public to come out and to take a look at what our plans are.

Host:  That's really exciting, I've seen a lot of those on inclusive playgrounds kind of popping up all over the place. It's exciting that Buffalo is going to be able to get one now.

Guest:  Yeah, it's great, and then along with all those things, it's the daily phone calls that we receive from people with disabilities who are just in need of assistance. We have people who are maybe unable to just shovel their driveway. And so, can we call out to a specific municipality or is there somebody to come in and assist them with that or somebody who's in need of food services or somebody who's in need of a non-driver's ID, we're getting a lot of daily phone calls and that's really our general rule, but there are so many things that this office is very busy with all the time.

Host:  Very good. As we're just at the midway point, for our listeners if you've just joined our program, you are listening to Independent Perspective In-depth, a program presented in the public interest by Western New York Independent Living. Our guest is Mr. Frank Cammarata, Executive Director of the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities. Now we'll continue exploring, ECOPD's work in the community.

Frank, your office works extensively with many nonprofit organizations serving people with disabilities besides the Western New York Independent Living family of agencies. Are there gaps in services within the county for the disability community that can be addressed with either additional county funding or through collaborations between local agencies, or through local foundations?

Guest:  Excellent question Jillian, and I'm going to answer it this way. I'm gonna say that one of the things that I've learned in my almost 10 years here in this office, is that this office is myself and my assistant, I would not be able to do the things that I do without collaboration, without working with folks like yourself, and all the other nonprofit agencies that are in Western New York. There are so many great agencies in Western New York. We touched on the vaccine distribution. I worked extensively with the Developmental Disabilities Alliance of Western, all of the IDD agencies to get those vaccines into people's arms. We worked with, again, we work with Western New York Independent Living on the Disability Pride event. It is vital that somebody in my position, the person in my position, it's vital that we have outreach and we work with each and every one of the different agencies, each and every one of the nonprofit agencies. Because I think through my collaboration with them, they also further collaborate with each other, which I think is just key, especially in the funding world that we're in right now with, with all of the cuts that have gone on. And all the funding cuts that have gone on, especially in the IDD world. It's important that agencies, collaborate, and I'll touch upon this too. I should have let the audience know I myself have a nonprofit organization called Buffalo Racing. And we push people in adaptive chairs in 5K races, local 5K races. Unfortunately, last year we weren't able to do it. I don't know that this year we'll be able to do it again. But next year we'll be coming out strong, we have three adaptive chairs that we utilize. And there's a number of us on the organization. I'm just a part of that organization. So, but it's just one of the nonprofit's that I that I work with.

Host:  That's awesome. Okay, whether it's due to mobility impairments, limited sight or other issues, transportation for people with disabilities always seems to be a concern in Erie County and elsewhere. Have any recent improvements occurred to alleviate any of these worries?

Guest:  The transportation piece, Ernie the transportation piece is ongoing. I can tell you that I participate with the NFTA Disability Advisory Council, their meetings are open to the public, and there's an opportunity for people to voice their thoughts and ideas for our local NFTA Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, specifically on disability related issues. There is no simple answer. We talked about about Uber and Lyft, and the difficulty with Uber and Lyft, with accessible vehicles and our local taxi services, again with the difficulty of accessible accessible vehicles. I know that our Senior Services Department, whom I work with, they have accessible vehicles. I know that Western New York Independent Living has accessible vehicles. I know that there are a couple other agencies, like Hearts and Hands that has accessible vehicles. But the reality of the matter is there aren't enough accessible vehicles, and there could always be more. But it's something that we're constantly talking about, we're constantly discussing. But as, as you all know, transportation infrastructure throughout throughout the United States is very difficult because it is so costly. But we need to make sure that in those discussions with regard to transportation infrastructure, people disabilities are at the forefront of those conversations.

Host:  Definitely. Western New York Independent Living has always asserted that informed citizens with disabilities are the ideal self advocates for their own concerns, and some are part of a body with which you are very familiar. Can you tell us about the ECOPD advisory panel known as the Erie County Council on the Disabled?

Guest:  Sure, happy to talk about our adivsory council. It's a group of people, some people with disabilities. We have family members. We have people who work in disability agencies. We have people who work in fields that assist people with disabilities. And it is an advisory council that is meant to advise me on needs and issues across the disability communities, deaf, hard of hearing, we have people from the blind visually impaired community. We have people who are in the recreational community, you know, we have people who work in government, so it's a very well rounded body of people who are there to advise me on again on the specific issues. I take that information and then what I do with that information is I share that with the county executive, so that the county executive is aware of the specific needs and the concerns of the disability community. From that, we actually have created a core advisory group. And the people who are on the core advisory group, are people who are on my Advisory Council, but there are people who are additionally on that core advisory group that their focus is to advise the County Department of Health and emergency management. The core advisory group or CAG group was an idea, created by FEMA. A few years ago, and FEMA reached out to the local communities, and said hey would you be interested in starting these CAGs. Erie County jumped on it, and we, in our community we have a CAG. The CAG meets on a monthly basis, and to be honest with you, the CAG has been meeting, more frequently than our advisory council. Although, you know, people who are in the CAG are also the same people from the Advisory Council, andnas you all know, the COVID-19 has really been the focus for everybody for the past year. So, you know, people in the CAG we talk about other issues but obviously the COVID-19 epidemic has been really the major topic of focus.

Host:  Alright, people with disabilities have a startlingly high unemployment rate at least twice as high as for able bodied individuals before the pandemic, and it's only gotten worse. What resources are available in Erie County for these citizens who want to find work?

Guest:  Again, another very good question, Ernie. I can say it's a good question because this is a question that we get very frequently from our office. As we know that the people with disabilities are very much under employed throughout the country. You know, we have, I believe it's a 37% unemployment rate for people with disabilities and in our community. So, it continues to be very high. It is something that I work on. Fortunately for me, my office is connected with our division of EEO or equal employment opportunity. And within that division, I work with our director, the Erie County has what is called 55 A employment opportunities. And those 55 A employment opportunities, enable a person with a disability to apply for a job without having to take a civil service exam. And so, we have 55 A through local and county governments, and then you have 55 B, which is offered by state employment opportunities. What I always recommend to people is to call ACCES-VR. They used to be called VESID, they are now called ACCES-VR that's your New York State Vocational Rehabilitation agency operated through the State Department of Education. They're the ones that are going to assist the person with a disability to find a job. They're there to assist with job coaching. They're there to assist with people, if they want to start their own business, providing some seed money, providing educational opportunities, etc. So, there are opportunities out there, and it behoves that person with a disability to get out there and just to talk with people. If you want to get a job, it's important to get your resume out there and to talk to people. I'm happy for people to give me a call, I'd be happy to talk with people about employment opportunities that I'm aware of. I work with folks from ACCES-VR, I work with people from the Western New York Mmployment Consortium on a very very regular basis.

Host:  Frank, even after a half hour there are probably many questions that our listeners have about the work of your agency. How can they contact you to learn more?

Guest:  Sure, Ernie. We are always here to assist our community. And I wanted to give you my email, which is and I want to give you our office phone number, which is 716-858-6215. If people should have any needs, any specific needs, any accessibility issues, any needs with county services, please feel free to reach out to us. But I also want to give you a very important phone number right now at this moment. It's the Erie County Department of Health's COVID hotline. That's 716-858-2929. That's the number for people to call if they have any questions regarding COVID, or if they're looking for a COVID vaccine through a county point of dispensing. As you're aware, some of the points of dispensing are New York State, are FEMA and some are county but that number, 716-858-2929, they'll be able to assist you with all of those resources.

Host:  That's awesome. Thanks so much for being with us today Frank, we and those listening are grateful for all the ECOPD does for consumers.

Guest:  Thank you Jillian, thank you Ernie.

Host:  You've been listening to Independent Perspective In Depth, a program presented in the public interest by Western New York Independent Living family of agencies, courtesy of the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service. Our guest has been Mr Frank Cammarata, Executive Director of the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities. This program features the song, A Little Ditty on the Dance Floor by Jay Lang available under a Creative Commons Attribution non commercial license. We've been your host Jilliam Moss and Ernie Churchwell, please check the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Services web page to learn where you can find a podcast to hear this program again, and for information on our next show. Have a good week, and be safe.