ILR grad and legislator makes disability a priority
At age 23, Cornell University ILR graduate Josh Lafazan became the youngest legislator ever elected to the Nassau County Legislature, in New York State. He is passionate about advocating for individuals with disabilities at the government level and is making a lasting impression on Long Island.
The first bill he sponsored, which became law in 2018, requires that a sign language interpreter be present at all emergency press conferences held by a Nassau County official. “During Hurricane Sandy we had individuals who were deaf or hard of hearing who couldn’t access critical life-saving information,” said Lafazan. “It is virtuous to make government more inclusive for all.”
His desire to advocate for people with disabilities was fostered by a class he took at Cornell called Disability and Employment Policy. The class was taught by Thomas Golden, former executive director of the Yang-Tan Institute (YTI) and is one of 13 classes offered through the Disabilities Studies Suggested Sequence at the ILR School with support from YTI.
“I took Professor Golden’s class on a whim, met Professor Golden, and it changed my life. In that class we were enlightened to learn about how the decisions that government makes affects the everyday life of people with disabilities,” said Lafazan.
Two key topics covered in the course are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the stigma surrounding disability. “Professor Golden lit a fire in me and made me promise him upon graduating that if I were to seek higher office and be blessed enough to be elected, that I’d make fighting for people with disabilities a priority,” said Lafazan.
Lafazan has kept that promise. For instance, he didn’t believe that the popular Stillwell Fields Park in Syosset, New York, was ADA compliant. He worked with the county executive to get a $3 million improvement project to add a variety of accessibility features, including accessible parking spaces and improved access to the park’s soccer fields.
Also, Lafazan is helping to break the stigma of disability by running an inclusive campaign internship program where students with and without disabilities work together and get to know each other.
Lafazan says using technology to assist individuals with disabilities was another key takeaway from the Disability and Employment Policy class. Lafazan put this knowledge to use when the Millneck Manor School for the Deaf mentioned that communication problems often occur when drivers who are deaf get pulled over by law enforcement.
Lafazan and the Millneck School came up with a solution. “We created a visor card, using a web application, where the driver can hand it to the officer. It says I am deaf, or I am hard of hearing, and lists the easiest way to communicate. On the back of the card, the officer is able to point to what they need from the driver,” said Lafazan.
Lafazan says the lessons he learned from Golden and Cornell University will continue to have a profound influence on his work and impact the 95,000 residents he serves in Nassau County. “Not only Professor Golden, but Cornell changed my life,” said Lafazan. “Cornell made me a more compassionate person. It made me more of an academic. It made me a better person to be surrounded by a diverse group in terms of thought, race, [and] socioeconomic status.”