New York’s Disabled Feel Left Behind

Annamarie Kaplon, acting president of the Staten Island Blind Society, is pictured with her guide dog, Quinn.

Article and photos by Cristine Trimarco | February 9, 2022

Before COVID-19, Annamarie Kaplon would gather the members of the Staten Island Blind Society, for which she serves as acting president, together for recreation once a month with the help of volunteers. But once the pandemic hit, most of the members had little interaction or communication, and some lived alone. There was not much she could do apart from setting up meal deliveries and phone trees to do check-ins.

Once vaccines became available, though, members started to feel safe reaching out again due to being vaccinated.“When we first started to get them out it was like a ray of sunshine for them. They got to come out and speak to other people,” she said.

But even before that joy was tempered by the recent Omicron wave, Covid-19 had made an outsized and lingering impact on members of the disabled community and the organizations that care for them. The census reports one in ten people in New York City as disabled, with disabilities including trouble with mobility, cognition, independent living, hearing, vision, and self-care. And that population may only be growing as some Covid-19 survivors experience lingering effects of the virus.

“It’s always been difficult for people with disabilities to get services,” said John Colón, Director of NY Connects at the Center for Independence of the Disabled NY (CIDNY). “Because of Covid everything went remote, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Colón also spoke of shortages because of COVID-19. Specifically, there is a shortage of home health aides, due to losing so many to COVID-19, others being afraid to go back to work due to fear of getting sick or dying, and some not wanting to be vaccinated. The same goes for bus drivers, especially with District 75 schools that take disabled students to locations that provide services. According to the New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT), New York State is running on 10-15% or 7,500 bus drivers statewide, as compared to 54,000 in years prior, leaving New York City with only 2,500.

Staten Island resident Gillian Puma spoke on behalf of her brother Vincent Puma, who is nonverbal and autistic. He graduated from high school six months ago, and his family is trying to get him into an adult care program.

“Unfortunately, he hasn’t been in a program at all because the facilities are understaffed and the adults in these programs are already immunocompromised,” she said. She hopes her brother can get into a program soon that will lead to supportive employment. “He doesn’t have an everyday routine and I see it affecting him.”

The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) recently released the annual AccessibleNYC report, which discusses the city’s current and planned services for people with disabilities. The report noted that there has been an increase in the percentage of unemployed New Yorkers with disabilities. 

Agencies created specifically to assist disabled people, like the state-run NY Connects, were rendered less effective during the pandemic, when virtual appointments largely replaced in-person ones. Remote appointments are a viable option for many industries and healthcare services, but for those people more likely to need hands-on assistance—like the disabled—they are a poor substitute. 

Making matters worse is the new, growing population of New Yorkers who have found themselves disabled with post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC), more commonly known as Long Covid. As many as half of Covid-19 survivors report experiencing lingering symptoms after six months, and the most extreme cases can leave them unable to work, causing them to search for income supplementation and state help.

 These patients are causing an influx of application assistance requests to agencies that provide services, which is in turn slowing down the process for all. Many support groups have been created to help these so-called “long-haulers.” 

Survivor Corps is an educational support group for those suffering from COVID-19 and PASC, about which relatively little is still known. Kathy Morgenstern of the Survivor Corps media relations department has created polls to gather data for medical professionals who are researching the condition.

“They’re helping these doctors who have never seen anything like this. They’re telling them their symptoms so that they can understand what’s really happening to a lot of people,” she said.