Illinois Issues: Budget Impact On People With Disabilities

Sep 3, 2015

Amber Smock, advocacy director of Access Living, speaks at a rally to protest plans for cuts during the administration of former Gov. Pat Quinn.
Credit Access Living

In July, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill calling for language that would create respectful references to people with disabilities throughout state law.

That move is positive, says Amber Smock, director of advocacy for Access Living. But, she says: “Here’s the thing. Any disability legislation that’s passed will be overshadowed by the budget.”

Specific cuts have and could eliminate services for people with disabilities and the postponement of the adoption of the budget itself has caused layoffs, furloughs and closures at social service agencies that serve people with disabilities. “The ramifications are pretty severe,’’ says Smock, whose organization works on disability rights issues.

***This is a sidebar to an in-depth report on the challenges Illinois residents with disabilities still face when trying to find work -- 25 years after the federal American's With Disabilities Act. Read that story here.*** 

Rauner vetoed the budget sent to him by the General Assembly with the exception of money for K-12 education. “We’ve seen people losing services,” says Rep. Greg Harris, a Democrat from Chicago. “It’s really a day-to-day struggle. It’s just heartless. Why would you put the most vulnerable of us at risk? What kind of a person does this?”

Rep. John Cabello, a Republican from Loves Park, sponsored the “people first” legislation, which changes “physical handicaps” to “persons with disabilities” in all state statutes. He agreed that the budget impasse is wrong-headed.

“Our critical agencies, including state police, including the agencies that take care of our disabled, our children, our elderly because unfortunately right now they’re being used as political pawns, and I think it’s disgusting,” he says. “We need to find a way to make sure that they’re funded, and if people want to play political football, they can do it with other issues, not with our most vulnerable.”

House Republicans are researching a bill that would in the future prevent money being withheld from those critical agencies, he says. “Hopefully, the Speaker [Michael Madigan] and the Senate President [John Cullerton — both Chicago Democrats] will let this bill go through the process and let it get voted on by every member of the House and Senate and then be signed by the governor.”

When asked why Rauner vetoed funding for people with disabilities, spokeswoman Catherine Kelly, responded in an email: “The budget passed by Speaker Madigan and President Cullerton was $4 billion in the hole, and while the governor works to pass critical reforms to free up resources within state government to help the most vulnerable, the legislature continues to block those reforms.”

The governor signed several pieces of legislation related to disabilities to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — including the people first bill and another which requires insurance companies to provide anesthesia for patients with autism, she wrote. “The needs of our most vulnerable citizens are very important to the governor, which is why he has signed a number of bills that will benefit Illinoisans with disabilities.”

But Harris, who chairs the House human services budgeting committee, says: “Clearly, the ADA is one of the bigger civil rights victories of our time. I think we’ve been making an effort, and that effort has come to a screeching halt.”

Among the specific program cuts Rauner had in his budget proposal in February was a plan to cut eligibility for services for about 34,000 people with disabilities, including seniors. The administration wanted to raise the eligibility score from a 29 to 37. People with the higher scores would no longer be eligible for services such as help in dressing and bathing, if the administration plan is approved. Following a House vote this week, both chambers have approved a bill that would reject the proposed change

Smock described other recent cutbacks in an email: “Access Living and our sister center for independent living, Progress Center, were informed we could no longer operate our Emergency Backup Personal Attendant Program for people with disabilities who have home services.” 

The program each year helps 500 people with disabilities find emergency Certified Nursing Assistants when their regular home-care workers are absent. “Our staff took calls very early in the morning to help people be able to get out of bed, dress, bathe, [use the] toilet, eat get to work or whatever they have for the day. With that program gone, there have been and will be people left lying in dirty diapers, unable to get out of bed, unable to eat and so forth.”

Meanwhile, a judge on August 18 ordered the state to make payments under the 2011 Ligas Decree, which gives people with intellectual disabilities who want to live in the community rather than in state institutions the right to do so. According to the disability rights group Equip for Equality, which brought the suit with other entities, the state had not made payments for those covered by the legal agreement since the new fiscal year began on July 1. After that mid-August ruling, the state made $120 million in payments, which the comptroller’s office says covers all of the bills it has received so far.