Published: 07/25/2021 9:30:10 AM
As we celebrate Disability Pride Month this July, it’s important to remember that the troubles disabled people are experiencing during the pandemic won’t end simply because Governor Sununu decided to end his emergency ordinances, and that the Health risks for those of us with underlying diseases have continued to increase.
The impact of COVID-19 has been enormous for everyone in New Hampshire across the country and around the world. For many who had to deal with childcare problems, wage and job losses, isolation or the tragic death of a loved one in the past year, it was the greatest challenge of their lives.
At the same time, the pandemic required the advancement and reinterpretation of the technology so that we could stay connected and continue government, work, school and social activities. Unfortunately, this expansion of accessibility has always been a necessity for many disabled people, but was often only rarely used on our behalf.
The legislature is a good example. For many disabled people who were unable to travel to Concord, the online hearings during the pandemic provided a first glimpse into the legislative process. It enabled them to testify on issues or listen to lively political debates without leaving their homes. The amplification of the voices of these Granite Stater has no doubt given me and other lawmakers perspectives that we were not aware of in previous sessions. Expanding the opportunities for disabled people to participate in the process only improved it.
Now that our country is trying to get out of the pandemic and life is returning to “normalcy”, disabled people are being deprived of their rights, access is being removed and participation is being revoked. While it may be “safe” for some to go back to the office, many disabled and immunocompromised people remain at high risk. While it may be convenient or commonplace for people to resume their ride to crowded Concord committees, for some it will always remain impossible.
In the legislative period, remote access to committees is inexplicably terminated. New Hampshire is lagging far behind in providing accessibility even in areas as simple and obvious as adding closed captions to the current live streaming of committee work and legislative sessions so that deaf and hard of hearing voters can easily follow legislative activity.
Democrats in the Legislature have urged that both lawmakers and the public continue to have remote access. Numerous rule changes authorizing remote participation have been proposed by lawmakers and rejected by a Republican majority. HB 216, which would have allowed local remote meetings to resume after the state of emergency had expired, was killed by Republicans on committee and then, in a break with established lawmaking practice, not even brought to the House of Representatives to vote. We understand that maintaining this access is not a luxury but a necessity for equal participation in our government.
There’s no good reason why these simple adjustments can’t be made. The technology has already been bought, learned from the legislature and successfully used. With the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and new variants of the virus, it is especially important to prepare now.
Disability does not discriminate, but Republicans in the legislature have and continue to do so. Protecting the rights of people with disabilities should not be a party issue. The necessary adjustments to the coordination process due to COVID-19 should also be continued. Only then can New Hampshire fully celebrate Disability Pride Month.
(David Cote is a representative of the NH State. He is the deputy Democratic leader of the House of Representatives.)