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Americans with disabilities need more support during pandemic, say advocates

Nearly one in four Americans lives with a disability. For some, that means a compromised immune system and greater risk for the coronavirus. Advocates are sounding the alarm that Congress needs to do more to help this population of society’s most vulnerable. Judy Woodruff talks to Tom Ridge of the National Organization on Disability and Danny Woodburn, an actor and disability rights advocate.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly one in four Americans live with a disability. And, for some, that means having a compromised immune system and a higher likelihood of getting the coronavirus.

    Advocates are now sounding the alarm that Congress needs to do more to help society's most vulnerable.

    I spoke about this with former Pennsylvania Governor and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge — he's now the chairman of the National Organization on Disability — and Danny Woodburn, an actor and a disability rights activist.

    We began our conversation by discussing how those with disabilities are affected in this pandemic.

  • Danny Woodburn:

    First of all, I think there's a fear around going in, obviously, that the — this community is more at risk, but also there's the notion that decisions might be being made with regard to quality of life and whether or not a person's quality of life is worth saving.

    So — and we talk about advocacy, for example, having an advocate in the room for people with disabilities, especially somebody with, say, Down syndrome, who has to go in and can't have a family member there or a person who has been taking care of them, working with them over the years to help them make decisions about their medical care.

    So, this puts them more at risk. And there's policy being looked at now that is a bit scary to people with disabilities, that determinations are being made like who gets a ventilator based on, you know, physical and cognitive ability, how the virus might have been affecting them and whether or not they get to keep a ventilator.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Governor Tom Ridge, as somebody who's been involved with the disability community for a long time, are these issues that have been discussed in the past, or is this something that is just now for the first time being thought about seriously?

  • Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge:

    One of the challenges that Danny and I and the broader disability organizations are dealing with is that we have made modest changes and very important and positive changes since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act 30 years ago.

    This is the 30th anniversary year of ADA. But what has happened during the COVID crisis, during this pandemic, is, we're seeing that, for the first time in 30 years, we don't have a seat at the table. There have been several rescue packages coming from Washington, D.C.

    And, appropriately, they are trying to reach out to those who are most affected by it and trying to reach out in economic terms and trying to help people through this very difficult period.

    We have had 15 or 16 disability organizations write to Congress, write to the leadership and saying, you know, we need more support for home and community-based health care. We do not want to be discriminated against as a population.

    And people with disabilities have lost a much higher percentage of their jobs. We haven't really been had any advantage or any focus put on us by the public policy-makers.

    When you talk about vulnerability, you talk about poverty, you talk about minorities, but whenever — the disability community is never mentioned. And we think it's time to focus on that, because we don't want to roll back the gains we have made over the past 30 years as a result of the COVID crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Danny Woodburn, as we listen to the two of you, is it truly the case that the disability community is just not heard at a time like this?

  • Danny Woodburn:

    Well, I think, within our community, one of the issues that we try to — we struggle with is coming together with a unified message.

    You know, there are so many vast types of disability and so many advocacy groups that people are releasing their own agenda with regard to what needs to be looked at.

    So, it would be great if our community could get together into a unified message and have these different, you know, branches of our community speak to each other. But, as you know, that sort of thing takes a lot of organization.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Governor Ridge, let's pick up on that, that the community has not been unified in making some of these arguments in coming forward in the past. Is that truly an obstacle here?

  • Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge:

    You're raising a very important aspect and condition of the community of the disabled.

    About two years ago, the National Organization on Disability, which is basically agnostic with regard to the disability — could be autism, could be blindness, could be Down syndrome — I mean, there's a range of disabilities.

    We basically say, as part of our advocacy platform, we're for all of you, and we want the broader employment community to understand that we're often — people with disabilities are often the last hired and then the first to let go.

    So, we're trying to speak with one voice. And the first thing we would like to do is have the policy-makers reach out to the organization to say, what are the basic components of agreement? In spite of the disability advocacy groups, there are certain things across the board we all agree upon.

    And that is the need for care, home and community-based services, and more employment options. But I think, if nothing else, the pandemic has demonstrated that people with disabilities can add value to your organization if you give them the opportunity to work at home.

    They have a quality of life. They want to work, they want to live like everybody else, and their notion of self-worth is based on what they can do for themselves.

    So, hopefully, when we get through this, people will understand and organizations will understand hiring people with disabilities should be a priority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just finally to both of you, a message to those in the disability community who are watching this, listening to this, in terms of why they should have hope for the future.

    Danny Woodburn?

  • Danny Woodburn:

    Well, there are a lot of people. I have a lot of friends in this advocacy world when it comes to disability.

    I know a number of journalists that write and expound on the treatment of people with disabilities. And just in my industry alone, watching the change over the last four years, the change in employment with regard to people with disabilities that I have been very much a part of in terms of helping to make those changes, seeing that is important.

    And remembering that that path upward existed for the last several years, we want to make sure that we each continue to have a voice to that path even after this pandemic is over and done with, that we continue on that upswing, and then just to keep talking as much as possible about these issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Governor Ridge, a message of hope?

  • Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge:

    There certainly should be a message of hope.

    Ironically, Americans without disabilities have been living, in many cases, in isolation, without a great deal of contact with the rest of the world.

    For the large number of men and women and children with disabilities, that's how they live. And it's impacted the quality of their life. And they have the same aspirations as those without disabilities.

    And so one of the ironies of this isolation is, I'd like to think there is greater empathy and understanding of how people with disabilities live and work and deal with their personal and family situations.

    And, hopefully, during this crisis, there's a greater appreciation in the broader community how valuable they are and how important they are to be integrated and become much more a part of our broader community.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such an important set of issues.

    And I want to thank you both, Governor Tom Ridge, Danny Woodburn. We appreciate it.


  • Danny Woodburn:

    Thank you so much.

  • Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge:

    Thank you.

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