Black man in suit standing at podium
Gyasi Burks-Abbott is a writer, speaker, and autism self-advocate who has shared his experiences living with autism at various conferences, both domestically and abroad.  He has also served on the boards of many autism organizations. Last year, Gyasi was a LEND Fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital where he had the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. and advocate for the successful reauthorization of the Autism CARES Act. Currently, Gyasi is a Gopen Fellow at the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston, a UCEDD that provides training, conducts research, and offers assistance to organizations to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. As an independent project, Gyasi created a website of autism in adulthood resources that can be found at He lives in Bedford, Massachusetts.

In October, I was scheduled to attend a conference on the use of technology to help people with disabilities live independently. The night before the conference there was a big rain storm that caused a total blackout in my town. I remember thinking how ironic it was that I was going to miss a technology conference because of a failure of technology. But the failure wasn’t complete—my cell phone still worked, and as a result, I was able to get e-mails from my energy company and updates from my neighbors on Facebook. So, I managed to stay informed even though I was quite literally in the dark. The lights came back on just in time for me to get ready and go to the conference where I learned about what I had just experienced—how technology can be marshalled to help people with disabilities live on their own without being isolated. A foreshadowing of what was to come.

I was all set for the Disability Policy Seminar in DC when the conference was cancelled because of COVID-19.  In fact, almost everything I had planned was either cancelled or postponed. Fortunately, the marshalling of technology once again saved the day. In the case of the Disability Policy Seminar, there were webinars and arrangements were made for virtual Hill visits. I also had the opportunity to participate in Zoom meetings with LEND Fellows and faculty from throughout the New England region as well as other advocates from both the Arc of Massachusetts and the Arc of the US.

When it came to the virtual Hill visits, my colleagues and I were faced with a dilemma. The pandemic posed a particular threat to the disability community, an already vulnerable population. Yet, how could we ask our members of Congress to address our unique needs in the midst of a global crisis? I think we did a good job balancing Congress’ immediate priorities with our long-term goals. What strikes is how many of the issues highlighted by COVID-19 are addressed by bills already waiting in the legislative queue. For instance, there’s the Social Security Income Restoration Act (S. 2753, H.R. 4280), which was introduced in both the House and Senate almost a year ago, and if passed, would increase the Social Security asset limit to $10,000. This would eliminate the immediate problem posed by the cash payments recently authorized by Congress while also ensuring greater financial security for Social Security beneficiaries in the future.

There’s the Empower Care Act (S. 548, H.R. 1342), which was introduced in both the House and Senate in February, and if passed, would extend Money Follows the Person, a program created to assist in the transition from institutional to community living, until 2023. As it stands now, the third package passed by Congress only extends Money Follows the Person until this November. And there’s the Home and Community Based Services Infrastructure Improvement Act (S. 3277), which was introduced in the Senate recently, and if passed, would provide states with increased federal funding through multi-year grants. Indeed, these grants would enable states to further improve community life for disabled people not just in the immediate aftermath of this crisis but also well into the future. 

It’s interesting how a breakdown in a system can lead to a deeper understanding of that system. When I was a psychology major in college, I marveled at how much of what we know about memory comes from studying people with different types of amnesia. And, I’ve sometimes learned the most about how my computer works when there has been a problem and a computer technician walked me through the steps of fixing it. As a LEND faculty member recently pointed out, COVID-19 presented LEND Fellows with an unprecedented training opportunity—one probably not seen since the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. When all this is over, I hope we don’t just feel relieved and ready to return to life as normal. I hope we remember the lessons learned and are inspired to make things better than normal.