October 28, 2002

Candidates Discuss Disability Issues

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Candidates for various local and state political offices assembled to discuss rights for disabled people in a forum held Friday at the Tompkins Cortland Community College. As the general election date — Nov. 5 — approaches, candidates scramble to voice last minute opinions on issues raised by the local community.

The forum, sponsored by the Finger Lakes Independence Center of Ithaca and the Access to Independence Center of Cortland County, brought together 125th district candidates Barbara Lifton (D) and Mike Sigler (R), 129th district candidate Francine D’Amico (D) and New York Attorney General candidate Mary Jo Long (G). The forum also included representative Alan Hevesi (D), candidate for New York State Comptroller, as well as 25th Congressional District candidate Mark Dunau (G).

Audience members presented questions to the candidates.

“Issues around disabilities are near and dear to my heart,” Lifton said. She cited her experiences working on disabilities issues as Chief of Staff for Marty Luster (D-125th), the current incumbent who is not running for re-election.

The candidates took the opportunity to discuss issues specific to disabled constituents.

“We’ve had some good things happening in New York this year,” Lifton said.

In response to an issue raised by the New York State 2002 Disability Caucus Agenda, Lifton said, “We had a very important benchmark [because] we finally got the medicaid buy-in that people have been fighting for for many years.”

In particular, candidates responded to questions regarding higher education and accessibility to public transportation for disabled citizens.

“We can bring people into the community and make them feel valuable in the careers that we can give them,” Sigler said. He further talked about the importance of job creation in general in the 125th district, labeling it as a universal issue.

However, in response to a questionnaire submitted to the candidates by the forum’s organizers, Sigler admitted to having “little experience working with the disabled.”

One of the issues the candidates focused on was the concept of a livable wage.

“I think that it’s wrong to say that people must work but we won’t pay them for the work,” Lifton said. “If they work full time, we’re going to send them home with poverty wages and they won’t be able to make ends meet; I think that’s wrong.”

Sigler believed that the best approach to creating a living wage is to promote growth in private industry.

“I believe that by bringing new businesses into the area you create a living wage,” Sigler said. “I don’t think the government is very good at setting those kinds of levels.”

Candidates Lifton and Sigler also both supported the idea of government accountability for aid to disabled people who do not want to live in facilities such as nursing homes. As a solution, both candidates supported the idea of government subsidies for independent living.

All candidates present recognized the need to increase accessibility to higher education facilities for the disabled and an increased government role in demanding rights for the physically and mentally disabled.

Among the demands being made by New Yorkers with disabilities are the implementation of a Medicaid waiver program, subsidies to help make the transition from care facilities to the community, recognition of the Americans with Disabilities Act by the state legislature and greater transportation and voting access.

Candidate Francine D’Amico focused on the issue of increasing aid in higher education facilities.

“I have taught at Central New York Colleges, including Cornell University [and] Ithaca College … and I know that none of these institutions have disability-friendly campuses,” D’Amico said.

All the candidates supported a general improvement of college accessibility for both mentally and physically challenged people. Other issues raised by D’Amico included the need for “affordable and accessible housing” for people with disabilities.

While the State Assembly candidates focused on the roles they would play as legislators if elected, Long stressed the position she would have as advocate for disabled voters.

“I have over the years, turned away and given up certain aspects of the practice of law and focused more on representing disabled people and injured workers,” Long said. “From that experience I’ve come to have a lot of opinions on some of the things that need to be done in the state and in the country to make life more livable for people with disabilities.”

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata