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Memorandum of Support

Provide Protecton and Fairness for People with Disabilities: Screening and Accomodation for Public Benefits Clients

People with disabilities are highly vulnerable in the public assistance system.

Many people who receive or apply for public assistance benefits have physical and/or mental disabilities that limit their ability to perform the full range of daily functions.  Public assistance recipients are more likely to have serious disabilities than the population in general, and are even more likely to have disabilities than other low-income people.[1]  Unfortunately, the welfare system is ill-equipped to recognize these disabilities, and therefore too often fails to make needed accommodations for these individuals.  As a result, the person with disabilities is often unable to successfully complete the application process, or if accepted, will be unable to take necessary steps to retain benefits or will be sanctioned for failing to comply with work-related requirements.     

OTDA has failed to provide adequate guidance and instruction to social services districts.

The State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has provided counties with insufficient guidance and direction to guard against such negative outcomes.  As a result, screening for disabilities is extremely uneven from one local district to the next, with too many counties doing little, if anything, to identify mental and physical disabilities.  The consequence is a failure to provide crucial accommodations to disabled clients.  Given these factors, it is hardly surprising that people with disabilities are disproportionately sanctioned for alleged non-compliance with the welfare rules and requirements.[2]  

Federal law requires evaluation and accommodations for people with disabilities.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), individuals with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations in the cash assistance programs, including help with filling out an application and gathering documents, the ability to reschedule appointments, home visits and modified work activities.  In addition, in 2001, the Federal Department of Health and Human Services issued  policy guidance stating that TANF agencies must offer TANF applicants and recipients disability screening to determine whether they have or may have a disability, and where indicated, the agency must give the client an opportunity for a more in-depth assessment.


Current state law and policy simply does not adequately ensure that screening is offered, that mental health, including learning disabilities, is assessed when screenings do occur and that disability information is used not only to determine employability, but also to assess the need for accommodations in general.  The result is that people with disabilities are too often denied the assistance they need, needlessly suffer extreme hardship, and the system bears senseless costs in the form of emergency assistance and thousands of unwarranted administrative hearings.

Proposed Legislation.

Our proposal would do the following:

  • Ensure that local districts offer applicants and recipients the opportunity to be evaluated for disabilities soon after they come to the agency for assistance and at other times, such as if it appears that an individual is  having difficulty complying with assignments for reasons that may relate to a disability;
  • Require OTDA to develop a high quality tool for screening for physical and mental disabilities, including learning disabilities, and require that districts use this tool or a reasonable equivalent to evaluate clients;
  • Provide that if the initial screening suggests a possible disability, the client must be offered the opportunity for a more in-depth evaluation by a qualified professional;
  • Require that, if the evaluation process indicates the presence of a disability, the client must be offered appropriate accommodations to ensure access to the benefits for which s/he is eligible.

This legislation would represent a major stride forward for New York in recognizing and accommodating disabilities so that the poorest New Yorkers receive the assistance they so urgently need.

The Validated Screening Tool.

Advocates have been working to persuade the state to adopt a quality screening tool, especially for mental conditions, for about seven years.  We were therefore both pleased and frustrated when OTDA announced in about 2010 that it would begin a process to validate – that is, to test for accuracy and reliability – a mental health screening tool.  The frustration was caused by two factors.  First, OTDA was initiating a process that would take, it seemed, 2-3 years.  Second, OTDA made clear that even if the screening tool was validated, they would only encourage, and not require, that districts use it.

In recent weeks, OTDA has received a report that finds this screening tool, known as the Modified Mini Screen (MMS), to be a valid means for assessing the likelihood of a mental condition.  Empire Justice Center believes that use of this tool by the local districts would dramatically improve the disability determination process, and support this legislation which would ensure that it will be utilized on a statewide basis.


This memorandum was prepared by:

Don Friedman, Managing Attorney

(631) 650-2316

For more information:

Kristin Brown Lilley (518) 462-6831,

Don Friedman, (631) 650-2316,

[1] See, for example, Loprest and Maag, “Disabilities Among TANF Recipients: Evidence from the NHIS Final Report,” The Urban Institute, May 2009.  One study cited in this report found that close to 30% of TANF recipients have serious disabilities.

[2] See Nadel, Wamhoff, and Wiseman, “Disability, Welfare Reform, and Supplemental Security Income,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 65 No. 3, 2003/2004.