Braille Monitor October 1986
by Clarence Thomas
(Mr. Thomas is Chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He is also Chairman of the Interagency Committee on Handicapped Employees. He delivered the following address at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Kansas City on Thursday morning, July 3,1986.)
I am pleased and honored to be here today to speak at the National Federation of the Blind of 1986. I am struck by the significance that one small word holds in your organization's name--"OF." Of the blind. This is a national federation of blind persons speaking for themselves. That fact is reflected in the special pride and independence that permeates the actions and literature of this organization and that shapes its quest towards equal and fair treatment. The quest for equality, as worthy a quest as there is, requires the special pride that you possess. This is true not only because of your opponents, but because of those who, due to ignorance or misunderstanding, believe that they can help by deciding for blind persons what is needed by blind persons.
Too often, as you know, members of the latter group take the noble concept of equality and turn it upside down and inside out. They seek to feed with guilty handouts and compromised standards your Federation's hunger for fair treatment and simple justice. Your frustration is one that I can wholly identify with for I am black. I am part of the grand experiment having started by competing against odds and succeeding; then having my personal achievements inextricably woven in the whole cloth of racially preferential social policies. The black community marched for equality, for equal treatment, for fairness. And what we wound up with was special treatment. Special treatment resulting in lower standards and expectations for the black community. It has only served to create dependencies and rob us of our dignity. In the past the government, sometimes with the best intentions, has ended up being the worst of offenders in this regard.
Dr. Jernigan has noted that the blind have had the same unfortunate experience, because government action has often served only to segregate blind employees from the rest of the work force through special training classes and procedures for certification of disability. However, by listening more attentively to blind persons speaking for themselves I believe that the government has begun to do better by blind persons, and will do still better in the future. I come before you today not so much out of a desire to make a speech to you but more to express, on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a willingness to listen.
As you know, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission we are empowered to enforce the fair employment laws and, of particular importance to this audience, Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 501 was created to stop employment discrimination in the federal government against blind persons and others with disabilities. The lav; requires that federal employers provide adequate hiring, placement, and advancement opportunities to handicapped persons. Personally, I don't like the term "handicapped." For instance, when I came into this room today I didn't notice any handicapped persons. All I saw was a group of people who can't see. The inability to see merely requires training and opportunity. That is the attitude I believe we should take in enforcing Section 501. Unfortunately, people find it "special" to give a word processor synthetic speech to accommodate the needs of a blind person. However, we want, we demand in fact, all kinds of accommodations for ourselves but categorize accommodations for those with different needs as special.
Although the concept of reasonable accommodation for handicapped employees is an area of concern to some people, accommodations are nothing new in an employment situation. Every time an employer purchases new equipment or functional office furniture, allows flexible working hours, coffee breaks, or provides anything that creates a more efficient or productive work place, an accommodation has been made. Providing accommodations for qualified, visually impaired employees simply means that the work-related needs of all employees will be considered. At the EEOC we are committed to ensuring that those reasonable accommodations are made. I tell my managers, if they find a qualified applicant for a job who happens to have a visual impairment, hire them. When it comes to providing money or equipment to accommodate them, that's my job, and it's not a problem.
There is nothing wrong with ensuring a place in this country's work force for the blind community. What is wrong is society's attitude toward that goal. That attitude is a product of ignorance, myths, sterotypes, and fears. And as long as these attitudes prevail, blind employees will never truly be a part of the work force, for they will not advance, they will not be given any great responsibility.
We recognize that this attitudinal problem exists within the federal government and have taken steps to ameliorate it. At EEOC, we have adopted a program developed by the California Governors Committee for Employment of the Handicapped called "Tilting at Windmills." The goal of this program is to increase the employment of people with disabilities. The program reduces attitudinal barriers that prevent the visually impaired from obtaining meaningful employment or advancing beyond entry level positions through eliminating fear, biases, myths, and sterotyping. "Windmills" teaches managers and executives that accommodations are not complex or necessarily expensive. It breaks down barriers between personnel, supervision, EEO and management. The Commission has required that all of its top executives and middle management personnel take this course so they may discover their own biases and conquer them. We have trained field employees in this program and sent them back to their district offices to further train Commission employees and exorcise this attitudinal barrier from our organization so that we may provide the best, consistent services for the government 's physically impaired employees throughout the country.
Another major threat to the goal of equal employment opportunity for the visually impaired is the trivialization of the handicapped equal employment laws that now exist. I, personally, was appalled to see that many of the cases that come to the Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of physical impairment are filed by individuals with minor or temporary disabilities. These individuals are abusing Section 501 and may ultimately, through their frivolous claims, undermine the laws for the group which 501 was meant to benefit. For I do not believe Section 501 was created to protect individuals suffering from left-handedness, flat feet or sprained wrists. Section 501 was designed to protect individuals with substantial impairments. Impairments such as blindness, deafness, and paralysis. If these complaints and suits are not curtailed or discouraged the capability of Section 501 to protect blind employees will be greatly reduced.
These people are using reasonable accommodation to request reassignments to light duty stations for a sprained joint, to request a change in job description and responsibilities to accommodate their minor impairment. It is these individuals who are engendering resentment and negative feeling in management to hiring, accommodating, and promoting individuals with disabilities. And who pays the price for this abuse? Ironically, the very group whom these laws were originally designed to protect, those individuals with substantial impairments.
As Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission I have worked towards invigorating Section 501 so that it will protect only those employees with substantial impairments not those individuals with minor or temporary physical problems. Stopping the trivialization of the equal employment laws for the physically impaired is a major goal of my tenure here at the EEOC. You will see a lot of significant action by the Commission on this issue in the next few years as we move towards ensuring equal opportunity in the federal work force for the visually impaired. Equal have taken significant action. It is an area where our two organizations are in perfect agreement.
What your organization wants is what all minorities want, what I as a black person have wanted--fairness and equal treatment. You don't want a break, you want a chance. You don't want an exception, you want an opportunity. An opportunity to perform and show your abilities, to be treated with respect and dignity. Section 501 says that the federal government and its agencies will actively hire, promote, and accommodate visually impaired individuals. It does not say that standards will be lowered to do so, that employee responsibilities will be lessened to do so, that exceptions will be made to do so. And none of these things need be done to do so. Your fight for minimum wage for sheltered workshops is a perfect example of the lower standards, and in this case salary, that have been placed on blind employees. While this is a matter subject to the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor, it is an example of the "special" treatment and lower standards for persons with disabilities that hurt, rather than help the blind. I strongly believe in equal opportunity exactly as it sounds--equal opportunity. And I do not tolerate lower standards or expectations. If a blind individual wants a job in the federal government, it's my job to see that he or she gets an equal opportunity to compete for that position.
As Co-Chair of the Interagency Committee on Handicapped employees, I strive to effect the same goals I have already described to you. Since the committee is made up of several agency heads, we have the potential to bring about great change. And we rely on organizations such as the NFB to help bring to light concerns that need to be addressed. In February of this year, the NFB did just that. Mr. James Gashel spoke to the committee and raised several concerns. In the short time that has elapsed since that meeting we have addressed some of those issues. The NFB raised the issue of promotions for physically impaired employees. Agencies that lower standards for handicapped employees serve only to deny those employees opportunities to move up in the agency since the work they are given is not of the caliber that leads to promotions. The NFB suggested that the expected appointment authority, Schedule A, be used to promote handicapped employees. In a recent standing committee meeting, OPM said there is no reason why Schedule A cannot be used for promotions and saw no need for new policy on the matter. Now, we have to get the word out to all the agencies that this is possible.
Mr. Gashel raised the problems many blind employees encounter under the current system of recruiting and retaining readers. The solution suggested is to have the blind employee substantially involved with the selection and compensation of their reader. We understand that effective accommodation can only be achieved through the joint effort of the employer and employee. Clearly, the employees must play a major role in this process for they know best what will facilitate their working environment. The ICHE plans to contact the General Services Administration about this issue in the near future.
In addition, the EEOC, in its capacity as employer, has instituted a program under which a number of employment slots are reserved for readers, personal assistants, and interpreters. Through this program the cost of hiring a reader will be borne by the agency as a whole, just like the costs of other employee needs, rather than by the particular office that hires the applicant. Thus a system with disincentives for hiring of blind persons has been abolished at the EEOC, and a new, more just system has been put in its place.
Another issue raised regarded the lower job performance standards currently in effect for blind employees of the Social Security Administration. The suggested solution was to strictly enforce the performance standards and that is exactly what we intend to do. As a result of that meeting, Health and Human Services is investigating the Social Security Administration's standards.
Jim Gashel also expressed the Federation's concern about the way that blind persons are brought on-board in the federal government. Blind applicants either must be certified by a rehabilitation counselor, or must serve a 700-hour probationary period. The Federation's concern was that the first route created long delays that eliminated the employment opportunity where the applicant or employer could not afford to wait. Jim's suggestion was that the 700-hour probationary period be used more often. I agree that this should be done, but believe that alone it is not an adequate solution. The trial appointment forces blind persons to serve a probationary period instead of receiving a more permanent appointment from the outset. I believe that in the long run the better solution is to make the certification process less cumbersome. Perhaps this would involve working with Vocational Rehabilitation and other service agencies to streamline the certification process. I would appreciate further recommendations, comments, and cooperation from the Federation as I seek to find, and implement, the best solution.
The Commission has come a long way since I took over. There were a lot of problems when I first arrived. But we have and are continuing to work them out. The Commission's record for enforcing the equal employment opportunity laws has increased dramatically. And while we are improving every day, we still have a way to go.
In closing, I would like to say that it is through the efforts of such active organizations as the NFB that our equal employment laws will be enforced. Organizations such as the NFB are the social conscience of our country. They make certain that the rights ensured by the laws are maintained in the spirit in which they were written. At the EEOC we recognize that and appreciate your efforts. We need an ongoing dialogue with the NFB to make sure that the choices and policies we make concerning blind federal employees are the right ones. Thank you.