U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) recently visited the Progress Center for Independent Living, listening to staff members’ concerns over federal cuts to disability programs. 

“Part of our greatness as a country is making sure we have a safety net and opportunity,” Durbin said. “There are now efforts to change and water that down. Senator (Tammy) Duckworth (D-IL) and I are working to prevent that from happening.”

Progress Center Executive Director Horacio Esparza opened the hour-long session on March 16 by acknowledging the work Durbin has done on behalf of the disabilities community, and then zeroed in on fears that, in the current political climate, funding for disability programs might be cut.

Esparza said his staff is already overwhelmed by the 450,000 people they try to serve in suburban Cook County, and that the inability of politicians in Springfield to pass a budget has made the last two years a “nightmare” for the Progress Center, 7521 Madison St., which provides social services to people with disabilities. 

Larry Biondi, advocacy coordinator at the Progress Center who was born with cerebral palsy and gets around in a motorized wheelchair, used himself as an example, pointing to what he called the “current assault” on Medicaid, or the low-cost health coverage offered to people with disabilities. 

Biondi said that without the Home Service Nursing Program he’d be in a nursing home. “My personal assistant, whom I am able to pay for through that program, got me up today and assisted me with my shower, getting dressed and eating breakfast,” Biondi said. 

Gary Arnold, whose diagnosis is dwarfism and who is the program coordinator at the Progress Center, contends that the threatened cuts in spending on Medicaid are to compensate for the reduction in revenue resulting from the recent tax reform bill.

Esparza added that the irony in cutting Medicaid spending is that it would result in many people with disabilities being forced to go into nursing instead of living more independently with a personal assistant.  He said the cost of  institutionalizing a person is about $75,000 a year, while the cost of helping a person live independently is under $30,000, so not only are people with disabilities able to live with more dignity but taxpayers actually save money.

Another concern Biondi voiced is the Americans with Disabilities Education and Reform Act, which recently passed the House of Representatives. “The disability community is outraged, because this legislation is designed to break the law,” Biondi said. What he meant is that HR620 makes it easier for businesses to avoid complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He hopes that the Senate won’t even take up the bill.

As a reply to businesses owners who insist they can’t afford compliance with the requirements of the ADA, Durbin said, “We’ll work with you. We don’t want to put you out of business. Together we can find ways to make your business accessible.” 

Geovanni Bahena, another Progress Center staffer who identifies as a Dreamer—someone who is undocumented and arrived in the U.S. as a child—expressed his concern about the weakening of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the reality that Dreamers with disabilities are not always receiving services they need.

After listening for almost half an hour, Durbin reminded everyone that 28 years ago he voted for the ADA and that he is cosponsoring the Disability Integration Act, which is presently in committee. If passed, the Disability Integration Act would expand the services and requirements provided by the ADA.