Congress Wants to Reduce Barriers to Success for the Disabled
WASHINGTON — A congressional panel sought answers Tuesday for how to help the disabled evade the stereotypes, abuse and depression that often push them into persistent failure.
“They’re forgotten or they’re an afterthought,” said Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, who formerly worked as a lawyer representing disabled persons, during a hearing on Capitol Hill.
They also suffer unemployment at twice the national average, forcing many of them into poverty and homelessness.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported recently in its annual review of disabled persons in the labor market that in 2021 their employment rate increased but they continue to lag behind the rest of the population.
The number of disabled persons took a sharp upward turn during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. About 1.2 million more Americans identify as disabled because of long COVID-19, which refers to headache and fatigue symptoms that can linger months or years after falling ill.
The pandemic is making Congress reconsider who can collect public benefits for the disabled as long COVID scourges its victims with both health and financial problems.
A recent report from the nonprofit Solve Long Covid Initiative estimated a $386 billion financial burden on the U.S. economy from 2020 to 2022 from long COVID’s effects on employment, savings and medical expenses.
One of the primary benefits to help them cope is Social Security Disability Insurance, which provides monthly payments to persons with medically determinable disabilities that restrict their employment opportunities.
To qualify for the benefits, applicants must prove they are limited by a physical impairment that is expected to result in death or has lasted or is expected to last at least 12 months.
“Now with COVID long haulers, it’s particularly difficult,” Garcia said.
Many questions linger about whether long COVID meets the criteria for benefits, according to representatives of the disabled community who testified before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion.
They also asked lawmakers to use the COVID-19 benefits reconsideration as an opportunity to seek broader solutions to the economic challenges of the disabled.
“Removing barriers to economic security for disabled people” will unleash prosperity for them, said Vilissa Thompson, co-director of the nonprofit Disability Economic Justice Collaborative.
The barriers include employment, obtaining credit and housing, she and other witnesses said.
A Center for American Progress public policy institute report this week said that “not addressing obstacles to the employment of disabled workers wastes a massive source of innovation at a point when the U.S. economy faces a wide range of challenges, including climate change, health care costs and an aging population, among others.”
Congress is considering relaxing the standards for the disabled to obtain Social Security.
Other proposals would require public release of data on employers who either welcome or restrict job access for the disabled and would eliminate at least part of the college loan debt for handicapped students.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, who chairs the Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion, said the pervasiveness of disability shows the need to act.
“Nearly one in four Americans lives with a disability of some kind,” Beatty said.
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, said the challenge for Congress is to figure out how to increase opportunities for the disabled.
“The role here in Congress is to make sure people with disabilities are treated the same under the law,” he said.
Some of the opportunities could come from new assistive technologies, he said.
One of them rolled out this week in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. It consists of a free app that can be downloaded onto mobile phones. It uses audible instructions to tell blind users how many steps to take, and where to turn and stop as they move toward their destinations within the transit system.
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