States Leverage COVID-19 Relief Funding to Improve Accessibility for People Living With Disabilities

July 28, 2022 | Beth Giambrone, Lana McKinney

The legs of a blind person using a cane and their friend taking a walk on sandy ground.This week marks the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal law providing broad nondiscrimination protections against people living with disabilities. The ADA has opened access to employment, transportation, housing, public accommodations, and state and local governmental programs for people living with disabilities. Under the ADA, people living with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations in order to perform a job, access governmental services, and to access places of public accommodation (e.g., restaurants, movie theaters, doctor’s offices). For example, if a person with a visual impairment has a job requiring them to use a computer, the employer may provide screen reader software as a reasonable accommodation for them to complete their job functions.

In addition to the federal law, the majority of states have enacted laws protecting the rights of people living with disabilities, some of which provide stronger protections for people living with disabilities than those outlined in the ADA. For example, the ADA applies only to employers with 15 or more employees, whereas the Massachusetts Employment Discrimination Law applies to employers with just six employees or more.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many barriers to equity for people living with disabilities. In response to concerns that people living with disabilities were not provided reasonable accommodations during the pandemic, several states took action to provide guidance on existing laws requiring healthcare organizations, private businesses, and schools to continue providing services to people living with disabilities.

COVID-19 has impacted how disabilities are defined under the ADA. In July 2021, HHS issued guidance recognizing Long COVID as a disability “under Titles II (state and local government) and III (public accommodations)” of the ADA. Although many people recover from COVID-19 without lingering symptoms, some people experience long-term effects from the COVID-19 infections and develop post-COVID-19 conditions, or “Long COVID.” According to CDC, Long COVID can last months or years, and CDC is working toward diagnosing post-COVID-19 conditions. To address the impact of Long COVID as a disability, states considered an array of legislation related to Long COVID and using pandemic relief funding to implement ADA enhancements.

States Consider Legislation to Support People with Long COVID

The prevalence of Long COVID is still being studied, with estimates of global post-COVID-19 conditions ranging from 20-80%. To gain a better understanding of how Long COVID is affecting the population, some states are considering legislation to assess the effects of Long COVID in the community. For example, New Jersey introduced A 2832 in February 2022 to create a statewide taskforce to “develop strategies to establish post-COVID-19 health clinics” and produce a report with policy recommendations to support people with Long COVID. In 2022 Minnesota considered HF 4706, which would have established a program for the commissioner of health to conduct community needs assessments and establish a surveillance system to address Long COVID. In addition, it would have required the commissioner to award grants and contracts to organizations serving communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and Long COVID, including people living with disabilities.

Beyond assessing the effects of Long COVID, some states considered bills to add worker’s disability compensation for COVID-19. For example, in 2021, the Michigan legislature introduced HB 4753 which would add “[i]llness or disease related to COVID-19 infection” to the definition of personal injury related to disease or disability for the state worker compensation program. If enacted this bill would provide workers compensation to people suffering from Long COVID.

Leveraging Federal Funding to Enhance ADA Accommodations

With the influx of federal funding related to the COVID-19 pandemic—the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—states are considering using these funds to improve the lives of people living with disabilities, including people with Long COVID. For example, in 2021 Nevada enacted SB 461, which authorizes the disbursement of $6 million of ARPA funding to the Collaboration Center Foundation to support services addressing the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people living with disabilities.

States also used federal funds to improve accommodations for people living with disabilities, such as by increasing support for accessible and affordable housing and transportation. For example, Illinois enacted SB 2800 in 2021. This bill appropriated funding from the CARES Act for developmental disabilities special projects and funded the Regional Transportation Authority to fund paratransit services for people living with disabilities. In 2022, Colorado enacted HB 22-1304, which uses ARPA funding to create two grant programs that support affordable housing, including nonsegregated housing units for people living with disabilities.

Earlier this year, Tennessee announced that $5.5 million of ARPA funding will be used to clear a 2,000-person waitlist for their Employment and Community First CHOICES program, which focuses on helping people living with disabilities find employment and integrate into the community. The bill will also expand their Enabling Technology program, which uses technology to support people living with disabilities to live as independently as possible.

Additionally, New Jersey introduced S 2159, which would appropriate $3 million of ARPA to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection for the design and construction of “completely inclusive playgrounds” that meet accessibility requirements, including ADA standards.

As states continue to appropriate funding from the CARES Act and ARPA, ASTHO will continue to monitor how funding is used to promote inclusivity of people living with disabilities.