By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

For adults with disabilities, the pandemic created a new set of barriers.

Running errands in the face of reduced transportation options, maintaining social distancing and getting needed social services when offices are closed posed obstacles for this population. 

For most Montclair residents with disabilities, the pandemic has meant a change in routine, and the need for increased services and social distancing to stay healthy. 

For many, it meant even more isolation.

“In a lot of ways we were kind of prepped for that area in that we’re kind of self-quarantined as it is,” said Dave Fucio, who has served on the township’s People with Disabilities Advisory Committee.

A 30-year resident of Montclair, Fucio has had multiple sclerosis for 25 years, and often uses a wheelchair to get around. 

At least one aspect of life has gotten simpler for him. With nearby Watchung School closed, Fucio said it’s easier navigating uncrowded streets when he and his wife go for daily walks. “In an odd way, it’s actually a blessing in disguise,” he said. 

For Justin Page, the pandemic led to a disruption in his living situation. While he said he is not in danger of being evicted, he is in the process of searching for a new place so he can return his current apartment to the building owners, who are selling the building. Page set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses. As of Aug. 10, the page had raised $1,600 toward a $2,000 goal. 

Page, a jazz drummer and songwriter, receives disability pay due to long-running issues with multiple sclerosis and other health issues. His disability pay is good, but it can still be difficult to cover food and housing expenses, especially with price increases during the pandemic, he said. 

He is looking for affordable housing in neighboring towns. “I would love to stay in Montclair, but I can’t see it’s going to happen,” he said. 

Lily Vakili, the parent of an adult son with special needs, said families in similar situations have learned to plan for contingencies. “You’ve always got some kind of operational plan,” she said. 

Vakili’s 23-year-old son, Nicholas, has a number of conditions, including verbal apraxia, which makes it difficult for him to form words. 

Nicholas Vakili uses an iPad with a speech function to help him communicate. It is harder to communicate that way via Zoom, Lily Vakili said, so the shift to Zoom discussions took some adjusting. 

For adults with mobility issues, being able to run errands or get to and from work may be a challenge if they rely on public transportation or need someone to drive them. 

Fucio estimated that he and his wife hadn’t been in a grocery store in five months in order to social distance. They order a lot of their groceries online through Peapod, or get produce through community-supported agriculture. 

“It was brutal for about two months,” Fucio recalled of trying to place online Peapod orders early on in the pandemic. He would often have to set his alarm for 1 a.m. so they could be ready to place orders within a narrow time frame. Since then, he said, it has gotten significantly easier. Getting needed medications and supplies from pharmacies hasn’t been a problem with increased delivery services, he said. 

Page orders most of his groceries online, but with the onset of the lockdown and with so many people opting for deliveries, the high demand meant long delays and shortages of items. A neighbor offered to do grocery shopping for him and others in the area who can’t leave their homes. 

Page said it was helpful that his doctors do consultations via telemedicine. However, when he does have to run errands, such as to the pharmacy, he relies on Uber and Lyft. The ride-sharing services can cost $25 each way due to surge pricing, and the fares soon add up, he said: “It’s not affordable for someone on disability.” 

For adults who rely on service providers to assist them with healthcare and daily needs, it may be difficult to maintain social distancing, as aides can rotate and visit other homes and patients. 

Adults who are living in group homes have not, until recently, been able to see family and friends, due to restrictions on visitors during the pandemic. 

“It’s really important to recognize that there are many more people who are profoundly isolated because of this,” Lily Vakili said. For people who were already isolated to begin with, the pandemic has made it significantly worse. 

Up until COVID-19, Vakili said her son participated in a day program in which he did small jobs and worked on life skills. “That all came to a screeching halt, just as for people who were in schools or working at their jobs,” she said.

The program has shifted to an online model. Additionally, all the places her son enjoys going to — the YMCA, the Montclair Public Library, the bowling alley — are closed. 

One routine the family has been able to maintain is ordering food from the Montclair Diner on Valley Road. When they arrive for curbside pickup, a member of the staff or one of the owners will come out and talk to Nicholas. “It’s a big part of his day because it’s an opportunity to be recognized in a social setting,” Vakili said. 

Page released a jazz album last week, which he recorded with other session musicians about four years ago. With the uncertainty around COVID-19, he felt he needed to release something out into the world, in case his health took a turn for the worse. The album is now available online through Amazon and other retailers. 

Lily Vakili said COVID-19, as well as the power outages, was a reminder that it is important for local government to understand the needs of people with disabilities. 

But, she said: “There is almost always a way forward.”