Earlier this week I had the honor of representing the National Federation of the Blind at a White House ceremony where President Barack Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). This new law represents a significant milestone for American workers with disabilities, because it provides, for the first time, real limitations on the circumstances under which people with disabilities can be placed in subminimum-wage jobs. The law will reduce the number of youth with disabilities who are tracked into subminimum-wage employment by requiring that they enter the vocational rehabilitation system—enabling them to be trained for, and placed in, competitive integrated employment. Combined with President Obama’s Executive Order 13658—which requires federal workers, including those with disabilities, who are employed under federal service contracts to be paid at least $10.10 an hour—significant progress is being made in ensuring that workers with disabilities will receive a fair wage. That progress would not have occurred without the National Federation of the Blind and the other organizations of Americans with disabilities that joined with us in concerted action for change to the WIOA and to the executive order. The WIOA, as originally drafted, would have increased rather than reduced the number of youth being tracked into subminimum-wage jobs. Our advocacy changed the proposed language of the law. Executive Order 13658 did not originally include workers with disabilities, but our advocacy persuaded President Obama to include us.
It is significant that the WIOA was signed within days of the twenty-fourth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which will officially be celebrated on July 26. The ADA represents a commitment by America to her disabled citizens. It promises inclusion rather than segregation. It requires barrier-free access to employment opportunities and to the public places to which all other Americans have access. It builds upon the principle, first articulated by our founder Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, that people with disabilities have “the right to live in the world.”
The White House ceremony and the upcoming ADA anniversary caused me to reflect on what we have achieved as blind Americans, and what barriers still remain on the road to equal opportunity. The advances represented by WIOA and the ADA are significant, but incomplete. I observe that even before this year’s ADA celebrations have concluded, a number of plans are already underway for grand celebrations of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ADA in 2015. I believe celebration is good but there are significant achievements yet to be realized and we should not let our progress be stalled by our past achievements. Now is the time to put energy into further establishing our right to live and compete in the twenty-first century world.
Step One: While WIOA and Executive Order 13658 limit the payment of subminimum wages, the practice is still legal under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This means that workers who are not protected by the provisions of the WIOA and the executive order can still be discriminated against and exploited, in some cases for mere pennies per hour. Now is the time to fulfill the commitment of equality expressed in the ADA by eliminating the subminimum wage provisions in the law and creating improved models for training people with disabilities for competitive employment.
Step Two: While the ADA legally grants us equal access to job opportunities, our unemployment rate remains stubbornly high; figures vary, but around 70 percent is a reasonable estimate. This is due in part to society’s low expectations of the blind and others with disabilities, but increasingly it is also due to inaccessible workplace technology. And while the ADA and its regulations require that we have physical access to “public accommodations”–the theaters, hotels, grocery stores, restaurants and so forth (places that most Americans take for granted )–there are no regulations governing websites that provide access to the same services. We can stay in hotels without discrimination if we have a reservation, but may not be able to book that reservation online in the first place. We can go to the grocery store and buy groceries with the assistance of store personnel if needed, but may not be able to order those same groceries online for delivery to our homes. This paradox cannot be what Congress intended, and the Department of Justice says that it understands this. In 2010, the Department of Justice pledged that it would set forth regulations about the accessibility of the internet, and in 2014 we continue to wait. At the National Federation of the Blind, we receive calls every day about instances where blind people are denied meaningful access to key aspects of daily life due to inaccessible internet resources. Every day that these regulations are held up is another day that the equality promised by the ADA is not fulfilled. How much longer will we have to wait? I would urge the administration to get this done before Labor Day.
Much needs to be done in order for blind Americans, and Americans with other disabilities, to truly take our place as equal citizens. Fortunately, the National Federation of the Blind is up to the task, with the willing hands and the determined spirit to do the work that is needed. We will repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and we will fight for equal access to the internet and to workplace technology. We will do the other things that we need to do to take our rightful place in society, through powerful advocacy and through innovative tools and strategies. With love, hope, and determination, we will transform our dreams into reality. On the anniversary of the ADA, let’s celebrate what we have achieved, then quickly move to take the next steps on the road to equality!