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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    

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Empire Justice Center Partnering with New York Disability Vote Network to Bolster Political Capital of Individuals with Disabilities

Written by Nicholas M. Lind, 2014 Policy Intern

New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN) Strengthens Individuals with Disabilities

Empire Justice Center is proud to announce our partnership with the New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN), a project of the Center for Disability Rights.  NYDVN strives to build, solidify and unify a disability voting bloc in New York State.  The network – the first of its kind in the State – will serve as a vehicle to promote a nonpartisan disability-friendly agenda initially focusing on health care, housing, transportation and employment.

NYDVN is developing at a time when voting rights for individuals with disabilities have come under attack.  In Los Angeles, the Disability and Abuse Project recently submitted a Voting Rights Act complaint to the U.S. Justice Department when officials limited the voting rights of individuals with disabilities who enter into conservatorships, legal arrangements in which parents or guardians are appointed to make certain financial or medical decisions. [1]

Bruce Darling, CEO of the Center for Disability Rights, commented in a statement released by CDR that, “People with disabilities have to fight for their civil rights every day.  Now New York will have a coordinated effort to ensure that the same people are also fighting for their rights in the voting booth as well.”  Kenyatta Dacosta, a community member, was also quoted in the report, remarking, “This project is important because it will allow elected officials to easily see how many people are affected by issues concerning disabilities.” [2]

Organizing a Disability Voting Bloc

A national movement led by the American Association for People with Disabilities has arisen in response to wide gaps in voting patterns between individuals with disabilities and individuals without disabilities.  In addition to New York’s campaign, similar voting and political networks have been created in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, North Carolina and California. [3]

Click here for a list of easy ways to make a difference and get involved!

Researchers that have studied political and voting participation of individuals with disabilities found that from 1992-2002, voter turnout for people with disabilities was 14-21 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities who had similar demographic characteristics. [4]

One factor leading to lower voter turnout may be persistent barriers to accessible polling places.  A review conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that in 2000, 84% of polling places had potential impediments to access, and by 2008 that number had only fell to 73%. [5]

Even when physical barriers to participation are overcome, social and psychological characteristics of disabilities sometimes hinder voter turnout by decreasing an individual’s social capital and identification with mainstream society. [6]  Reaching out to voters not only informs them of the issues at stake but also counters feelings of segregation.

Despite these barriers, it appears that the movement to improve turnout of voters with disabilities is having an impact.  In 2008, the participation gap fell to 7% and by 2010 it had slid to 3%. [7]  NYDVN will work to cement the progress made in voter accessibility, and will turn toward the next step of political organizing: solidifying the disability voting bloc.  Importantly, statistics show that voter turnout among people with disabilities is positively correlated with developing group consciousness with a political party or organization (such as NYDVN), commitment to specific policies and involvement with formal or informal networks of like-minded peers. [8]

Making Progress: Gaining a Unified Voice

Political organizing efforts similar to NYDVN have proven effective at gaining the attention of policymakers.  Former Congressmen Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Tony Coelho (D-California) agree that “one of the biggest challenges [within the disability community] is uniting around common identity and common struggles.  When the community does unite, however, there is no stopping its strength and power.”

“It is estimated there are more than 65.7 million family caregivers, supporting relatives with disabilities and seniors at home,” Dole and Coelho write.  “Add to this the millions of direct-care workers, other professionals and friends who care about loved ones with disabilities.  You start to get the picture.  This is clearly an important constituency!” [9]

For more information, please contact Jessica Thurber, Voter Rights Coordinator at the Center for Disability Rights at jthurber@cdrnys.

End Notes:
 [1] Michael R. Blood. (2014, July 10). “Disabled people denied voting rights, group says.” Associated Press. Retrieved from
 [2] “New Website Geared at NY Voters with Disabilities” Press Release, The Center for Disability Rights (CDR). Retrieved from
 [3] Each source provides information on voter organizing within a specific state.  See “Ohio Disability Vote Coalition Seeks People to Join its Voting Bloc” (2012, March 15). Disability Rights Ohio. Retrieved from; “Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access for Americans with Disabilities”. (2014). Services: Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from ; “Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition” (2012). Retrieved from; “Rhode Island Disability Vote Project”. (2011). Retrieved from; “Vote 2012! Your Right. Your Voice.: A Guide to voting for North Carolinians with Disabilities”. (2012). Disability Rights North Carolina. Retrieved from; and “All About the Disability Organizing Network”. (2014). DONetwork. Retrieved from
 [4] “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see  “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [5] “Voters with Disabilities: Additional Monitoring of Polling Places Could Further Improve Accessibility” (September 2009). Report to Congressional Requesters, United States Government Accountability Office. GAO-09-941. Retrieved from
 [6] “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [7] See “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2008 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, July 2009. And “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2010 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, June 2011.
 [8] See “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [9] Bob Dole and Tony Coelho. (2012, September 16). “Disabled voters possess untapped political power”. Politico. Retrieved from

Tags: disability rights | Center for Disability Rights | Voting Rights Act

Welfare, Work Rules and Education: The 2014 Changes

Issue Area: Public Benefits

With the 2013-2014 state legislative session over, we are excited to share news of expanded access to education and training for welfare recipients, a long-time priority for Empire Justice and for me personally.  As is often the case for me, this was the work of a coalition, the Education Task Force, with crucial leadership and energy provided by the Welfare Rights Initiative.

For the first time, participation in a four year college program can now count towards a welfare recipient’s work requirement.  Placing four year college on the list of “countable activities” is a crucial step in enabling individuals to receive public assistance and pursue a four year degree. 

The details are somewhat complicated.  Basically, for 12 months, college and related activities can comprise the bulk of a person’s work obligation.  After 12 months, college must be combined with at least 20 hours of participation in, for example, paid employment, work experience or on-the-job-training.

Another significant revision relates to work preferences.  A rule stating that client activity preferences must, when feasible, be honored has long been the law for households with children.  This rule now applies to all households.  If the preferred activity is not assigned, the reasons must be set forth in writing. 

Some comments about these amendments:

  1. These changes can significantly improve access to education and training for welfare recipients, perhaps the wisest investment that can be made with public assistance dollars.
  2. There is still considerable local discretion about assigning a person to college.  However, we would argue that where college is an appropriate activity, it cannot be arbitrarily denied. 
  3. Homework:  We were unable to secure a mandate that districts count homework hours as work.  But districts have discretion to allow homework hours to count, and some already do.

As I have often observed, the people we seek to serve may be unaware of rights such as these, and may struggle to advocate in support of their rights if confronted by an overworked, not very supportive agency staffer.  I fear that these laws barely exist unless advocates educate their clients and local agencies, and demand that they be fully and fairly implemented.

Click here for a more detailed analysis.

Tags: welfare | public assistance | work rules | education | college

Assisting Non-Custodial Parents to Modify Child Support and Arrears Payments

Issue Area: Child Support

Legal services providers and community agencies throughout New York State are seeing an alarming increase in the number of very low income parents burdened with onerous child support obligations and arrears debt that adversely affect their ability to avoid homelessness, remain employed, cope with illness and disability, and maintain a relationship with their children. For the most part, legal services offices do not offer legal representation for child support matters.  Parents are left to navigate the family court and child support enforcement system without any assistance, often without success.

With this posting, we urge legal services and other community agencies to consider offering some guidance to pro se poor parents who may be entitled to a modification of their support obligation or can reduce their monthly arrears payments based on their limited income. Using the steps outlined below, parents can determine the amounts owed, whether there is a basis for modification, and which forum will entertain an appeal.  We do not assert that offering guidance will make up for the lack of legal representation and assistance available, but many parents may be able to obtain some adjustment to the amounts they must pay on their own if they understand what information they need to provide to either the county’s Child Support Enforcement Bureau (CSEB) or the court.  Although not a comprehensive list, here are some straightforward ways to assist parents to proceed pro se:

1.  The first step is to understand what is being garnished from their paycheck or disability payment.  Does the amount represent current child support, arrears, an “add-on” to arrears (see below for explanation), or some combination of these?  If the payment is made to the NYS Division of Child Support Enforcement and parents know their account number, they can obtain  a PIN number by applying online at the Non-Custodial Parent page on the OTDA website at, or by calling the Child Support Helpline at 1-888-208-4485. With a PIN number, parents can view their accounts and figure out whether they are paying ongoing support, arrears, and/or add-ons and how much they owe.  They can also obtain copies of their child support orders that the Division has on file.  A copy of the order is needed to petition in family court for a modification of support.

2.  Reduce the monthly payment amount.  In some cases, the Child Support Enforcement Bureau (CSEB) will reduce the amount of monthly payment, even though it cannot reduce the total amount of arrears.  If part of the garnished amount is the “add on,” an administratively imposed garnishment that is applied when a child support respondent is in arrears, application can be made to reduce or eliminate this portion of the amount of the arrears payment.  The “add-on” portion of the payment will be reduced or eliminated if the payment of the add-on brings the individual’s income below the self-support reserve (135% of poverty for a household of one – this year the SSR is $15,755). The self-support reserve is adjusted annually and is posted on-line at   There is an application on the NYS DCSE webpage for Non-Custodial Parents, entitled Request for Review of Additional Amount that must be submitted along with a Statement of Income and Expenses and other income documentation such as a tax return or a Social Security statement.  These forms are also available at  When completed, the forms are submitted to the local child support enforcement office. The addresses of the local offices are available at  To read more about the add-on see 18 NYCRR 347.9(e) and 09 ADM-02, available at

3.  Apply to stop collection of arrears from exempt income and to correct mistakes.  If the parent’s sole income is SSI, public assistance, or another exempt source, there is an application on the same Non-Custodial Parent Page of the NYCSE website to stop garnishment from a bank account. This application, Mistake of Fact and/or Exempt Money Claim Form, should also be submitted if the support amount being collected does not agree with the order amount or if the order has been vacated.   If parents are receiving exempt income in a check that is being garnished, they should submit the Request for Review of Additional Amount and Statement of Income and Expenses described above and state that the income being garnished is exempt.

4.  Reduce amount of ongoing child support. The parent must petition in Family Court for this relief and it can be difficult without legal assistance.  However, the state now offers DIY (do-it-yourself) programs with which pro se petitioners can work their way through a series of questions that result in a petition and affidavit to file in court.  The link is and the program is quite good.  Currently, it is available in English and Spanish.  The Spanish version produces a petition in English for submission with a translated copy in Spanish for the litigant. 

If the support order includes an amount of arrears that must be paid periodically in addition to ongoing support, a request to reduce that amount should be included in the same petition.  Please note that there is no reference to arrears payments in the standardized or DIY petition forms, so the request will have to be added by the petitioner.

5.  Cap the amount of arrears owed at $500.  Family Court Support Magistrates cannot reduce the total amount of arrears owed, except in very narrow circumstances.  However, pursuant to the Family Court Act § 413 (1) (g), a noncustodial parent can petition the Family Court to limit the amount of arrears owed to $500 if his/her income was below the federal poverty line for a single individual at the time the arrears accrued.  Case law dictates that the parent must make application to the court for such relief and must show that the income limitation was due to disability or some other inability to earn income.  Proof that the individual is receiving public assistance should be sufficient as well.  If appropriate, this claim for relief needs to be added manually to the DIY or  standardized Petition for Modification, as neither form includes it. 

A cap on arrears may provide the best relief to indigent parents, but there are few published decisions to date in which the petitioner was successful.  If you are interested in offering legal representation to a client who can assert such a claim for relief, please free feel to contact us for assistance.

Tags: child support arrears | child support | family court | support modification | garnishment