The COVID-19 pandemic has hit individuals with disabilities hard, and representatives from the state’s five independent living centers that serve them are appealing to lawmakers to restore historic underfunding as well as a cut in the governor’s proposed budget. 

The nonprofit centers, or ILCs, help any of the Connecticut’s estimated 350,000 individuals with disabilities with living skills, assistance with housing, employment and medical needs. At a virtual news conference Tuesday, leaders said that ILC program was underfunded by $2.1 million before the pandemic — and a proposed $62,000 cut in the budget proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont. 

The pandemic has revealed some real deficiencies in the way services are provided to people with disabilities, Eileen Healy, executive director of Independence Northwest in Naugatuck, said. 

For example, deaf people were having trouble signing up for vaccinations through the state’s Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS). “They were trying to sign up on VAMS with no ability to request an interpreter,” Healy said.

Healy said the ILCs have helped transition many people out of nursing facilities to independent living, 93 people in FY19-20. “That service saves the state millions of dollars every year in Medicaid costs. … That money goes back to the General Fund and never quite goes back to the centers.”

State funding is $613,000, or around $122,000 per center this fiscal year. A 2016 report commissioned by the State Independent Living Council, concluded that Connecticut would need to allocate $550,000 to each center as a “minimum base level of state funding.” At current levels, each center is operating $428,000 below that threshold, officials said. 

They point to a different financial picture in neighboring states. Rhode Island, for example, provides $302,560 for one ILC, Massachusetts allocates $7.1 million for 10 ILCs, and New York allocates $13.4 million for 40 ILCs, according to officials. 

Candace Blanton, an advocate funded through the CARES Act at the Center for Disability Rights in West Haven, connects consumers to technology so they can keep in contact with family. 

“The phone is a great resource, but technology that can bring people face-to-face with their spiritual communities, their families, their friends and work groups is the best technology,” Blanton said. She said she helped one mother, who had not seen her daughter in 6 months, connect with her via FaceTime. 

“My position as a CARES Act advocate will come to an end in September,” Blanton said. “Our previous consumers along with our new consumers will no longer have access to these programs. The funding will end, the staff will be gone, but there will still be a need for our community to be connected.” 

Kassey Neason, an independent living advocate for deaf services at Independence Northwest, said the center provides help with tax preparation, getting appointments for COVID vaccines, and with translation of and filling out documents. The agency used to host “deaf coffee chats” at local restaurants once a week before the pandemic hit. All of these offerings have been moved online.

“Several consumers are isolated at home and don’t have the ability to get out and socialize,” Neason said.

Brian Naylor, assists people with veterans benefits, and recently helped a 32-year-old man whose mother lives in South Carolina. 

“She has called me several times about problems going on with him and asked me to help,” Naylor said. “We are taking extra time so that when consumers call us, we address all of their problems, not just one.” He was able to set up a meeting for one of the veterans groups in Southbury, and now advocates are busy working to help people with their food needs.

Norah Farris, a New Milford resident who worked as a nurse for several years, found herself in need of the center’s services after a surgery left her disabled. 

“I had trouble navigating through the state system,” Farris said. She found help through one of the center’s advocates, who helped her find the appropriate resources. 

“He advocated on my behalf through the process,” Farris said. “He never gave up, so I never gave up. I was finally able to be comfortable and plus I made a new friend.”

“Governors in the past have totally wiped us out of the budget and thanks to the legislature, we have been put back in,” Healy said. “We definitely don’t want to experience a cut, especially at this time.” 

At an unrelated press conference Tuesday, Lamont told everyone to slow down.

“We’ve got significant federal resources where we have an emphasis on not-for-profits like them,” Lamont said.

He said the funding could get restored through some of the federal COVID funding coming to the state.

“I think that they’re going to see significant funding over the next two years. We need their help more than ever after the year that we’ve been through,” he added.

The Connecticut Independent Living Centers are Access Independence in Stratford, Center for Disability Rights in West Haven, Disabilities Network of Eastern CT in Norwich, Independence Northwest in Naugatuck, and Independence Unlimited in Hartford.