After a marathon week of negotiating, Congress has wrapped up final deliberations and voted to pass a COVID-19 relief package for individuals, businesses, and local governments, which are continuing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. On hold since May, when the House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act, Congress finally agreed to provide about $900 billion in aid as part of a massive 5,600-page year-end omnibus appropriations bill. That means the bill will fund both coronavirus relief and the federal government’s regular budget cycle, which began on October 1, 2020.
How Will This Round of COVID-19 Relief Impact People Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision?
On December 12, 2020, AFB sent a letter to Congress reminding our legislators of some of the most important needs identified in the Flatten Inaccessibility and Access and Engagement surveys. We asked Congress not to waive key civil rights laws under the guise of protecting businesses from COVID-19 liability lawsuits; to ensure blind children and students receive an equitable education; to protect the operation of public transportation services; and to ensure that vaccines will be available to people without access to transportation.
There are certainly other concerns raised by the disability community related to the ineligibility of dependent adults for stimulus payments, restrictions on housing assistance, and the need for additional home and community-based services supports. Read more from the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and the Center for Public Representation.
Although the decision came at the cost of no additional funding to support state and local government budgets, we are very pleased that Congress set aside a proposed waiver of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other employment-related civil rights laws. Congress may have intended to shield businesses from lawsuits related to unavoidable risks of virus transmission, but the chosen language would have dramatically undercut disability law for years. It is a win for the disability community that that language was left by the wayside!
We are glad to see the inclusion of $14 billion for public transportation services. With transit agencies across the country facing deep revenue cuts, we are deeply concerned about the long-term effect of ongoing and proposed service cuts. Public transportation services, including paratransit, are critical to ensuring access to jobs, food, and more for the millions of blind people who cannot drive.
We were further encouraged that this sum includes $679 million in supplemental funding for rural transportation services and $50 million for federal grants that support services providing transportation to people with disabilities, including volunteer driver programs, mobility management, and certain door-to-door services that go beyond ADA paratransit. These funds help ensure that transportation options continue to exist and that they are safe to use during the pandemic.
We were pleased to see that Congress has allocated $82 billion to support education, including approximately $54 billion for public elementary and secondary education. These funds may be used for a wide array of expenses related to virtual and in-person education, and Congress has directed states to report on the use of the funds, including how they will serve students with disabilities. However, we are disappointed that none of the money is directed specifically to special education; nor does Congress reiterate the need for digital education to be fully accessible to students with disabilities. We will continue to work to ensure states understand their obligations and have the support needed to deliver equitable educational experiences.
Finally, we note that Congress has provided funds for states to provide testing and vaccines, including in rural areas and in underserved communities. We are hopeful these funds will support states in offering opportunities for all people to receive a vaccine, regardless of whether they have access to a personal vehicle.
We will continue reviewing this bill and advocating for people who are blind and have low vision. In the meantime, we wish you all happy holidays and hope you have time to reflect and refresh as we enter a new year. In particular, we are thinking of all who are affected by the pandemic in ways large and small and look forward to recovery in 2021.