Obstacles that disabled residents deal with daily intensified during the pandemic. A new office promises to change that trajectory with a training and information center dedicated to improving services across Santa Clara County.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the new Office of Disability Affairs on Tuesday, a victory that advocates say was hard-won.
“There were many pieces that went into this, of many people advocating throughout COVID,” Michele Mashburn, director of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center, told San José Spotlight. “There still are barriers that exist.”
More than 100 people spoke in favor of the new office at Tuesday’s board meeting. Supervisor Cindy Chavez proposed the office, and Mashburn said she listened to disabled rights advocates and constituents.
“Cindy Chavez… helped move the needle significantly,” Mashburn said. “I believe Cindy Chavez saw those realities, with the many complaints and the many people who brought them to her.”
Chavez held a press conference on Monday where she said the pandemic exacerbated access issues for many residents, including blocking access to COVID-19 vaccine sites and public transportation.
“We must start removing those barriers one by one for everyone, from autistic children to adults who cannot walk or see,” Chavez said. “The county needs to include disabled children and adults in all of its equity policies and programs.”
The new office will serve as an information hub for the county’s various departments that serve people with disabilities and offer guidance for how to improve policies and programs. The office aims to serve residents with a broad range of physical, mental and social disabilities.
Disabled Americans suffered twice the rate of poverty as people without disabilities in 2019, according to the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. Additionally, roughly half of police use of force incidents in the U.S. occur against a disabled person, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation.
Americans with disabilities are also more likely to fall ill from the coronavirus, and people with intellectual disabilities are three times more likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to be admitted to the hospital, according to a study published by the Massachusetts Medical Society.
“COVID presented a perfect storm of added tension,” Mashburn said. “It exposed the systemic inequities in a way that has never been exposed before.”
Highly visible examples of unequal treatment are the al fresco dining programs initiated by many cities in the South Bay. Mashburn said people in wheelchairs are unable to ascend the sidewalk curbs to dine in outdoor seating areas.
“Barriers are everywhere… even when something is to the (Americans with Disabilities Act) code,” Mashburn said. “They’re neverending.”
San Jose is not the first to implement a department for disabled residents. San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City already established an office serving residents with disabilities, which range in focus and scope. San Francisco’s office primarily covers programs and services offered by the city and county, while New York’s mission is to make the city the “most accessible” in the world.
Kristen Brown, a San Jose resident with two sons who are autistic, spoke at Monday’s conference and said public schools often don’t thoroughly assess students for learning disabilities. She said while affluent parents can afford to pay for private disability assessments that give their kids access to special education services, poorer parents are left to deal with the academic and social consequences of their child’s untreated disability.
“Some parents feel despair when their child’s disability is untreated long enough to cause a behavioral disorder,” Brown said. “When they discover their earlier parental instincts were correct, they’re angry and guilt-ridden… their child is on a path well below their potential.”
Disabled children enrolled in special education are 13% more likely to drop out of high school than those who aren’t enrolled, according to a report published by the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara.
Veronica Guzman, founder of autism advocacy group Yo Soy Tu Voz, said society’s progress toward greater social and racial equality leaves many Latinx residents out of the loop. She said immigrant families, particularly those who primarily speak Spanish, face language barriers, are fearful of the police and distrustful of school officials.
“We struggle with barriers to access areas that are crucial for our disabled children and adults,” Guzman said. “We need to do better for these families.”
County officials will report back to the Board of Supervisors with a framework and source of funding for the new office on Sept. 28.
Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.