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Advocates call on New York lawmakers to reinstate disability advocacy office

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - There is currently no single New York state department that assists all people with disabilities. Disability activists are urging state lawmakers to change that by reinstating an Office of the Advocate for Persons with Disabilities.

While there are various state agencies that manage services for people with specific types of disabilities, like the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and the Office of Mental Health, autistic self-advocate Melanie Hecker says accessing individual services is a complex maze.

“These services which we need to live and thrive and achieve our greatest potential can be very confusing,” Hecker said.

That’s where she said a proposed Office of the Advocate for Persons with Disabilities could help.

It would act as a central hub that would direct anyone with a disability to the services they need, regardless of the type of disability they have — and it’s not exactly new, either.

In 1983, then-Governor Mario Cuomo established by executive order the New York State Office of the Advocate for the Disabled. However, it was later defunded by his son, former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Zach Garafalo, manager of government affairs with the Center for Disability Rights, said reestablishing this office could help more than 2 million disabled New Yorkers overcome accessibility barriers by creating a streamlined process.

“Disability is the only minority that you can join at any particular point in time, and so it’s critical that we have this infrastructure in place so that we get the services we need,” Garafalo said. “There’s no state agency that looks at the systemic needs of the disability community and is then able to communicate how to improve the entire system to the executive chamber.”

Currently, a bill that would reinstate the advocacy office has passed both the state assembly and senate. However, for now, it remains with the assembly. Assemblymember Phil Steck, who sponsors the bill, said that’s because the Governor’s office had requested the bill not be submitted yet.

“The issue that the Governor is apparently grappling with is where in the state (agencies) this office should be located,” Steck said. “As long as the office is created, whatever the Governor wishes I would certainly abide by.”

Governor Kathy Hochul’s office did not respond to Assemblymember Steck’s comment but said on Monday that she would review the legislation when it reaches her desk.

Steck said he expects a decision could be made on this bill by the end of January.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.