by Gregg Harper
From the Editor: Congressman Gregg Harper is the lead cosponsor of the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013. Through the courageous act of sponsoring this long overdue reform, we see his commitment; in the presentation he made on the afternoon of July 5, we see his passion. Here is what he said to the 2013 convention:
Thank you so much, God bless you. Wow, what a great introduction and what a warm welcome. I'm so glad to be here with you today, and what an incredible group. I'm telling you—this is amazing. What a great turnout, and to be here with so many of you—I can't tell you how excited my wife Sydney and I are to be here. Sydney is seated on the front row just to my left, and she's the one in our family who always does the heavy lifting. Looking at your program, my goodness, what a great lineup it is. And to see friends around the room—this is a special time for me.
Sydney and I left this morning about six o'clock to fly here and be with you today. I have to say this: that is probably the best reception that any member of the Congress has gotten in a long time. Now this may come as a little bit of a surprise to you, but Congress is not real popular right now. It's true. In fact, I was on a flight home a couple months ago, and somebody asked what I did, and I told them I was a lawyer.
I know we've got a great group here from Mississippi, and I notice we've got people from all fifty states here—everybody's here. Is it okay if I say "ya'll"? Now some of you that don't have the privilege of being from the Deep South, I'm going to help you just a little bit, okay? If I say "ya'll," that can be singular or plural. If I say "all ya'll," that's plural. Now if I say "all ya'lls'," that's plural possessive.
You know I have to say that when I first arrived in Washington, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many organizations there are that are devoted to working on disability issues. A few organizations stand out within the advocacy community—the National Federation of the Blind is one of those groups. Now in fairness, Rev. Sam Gleese of Mississippi deserves much of the credit for making your organization's priorities known in my office. Like many of you, Sam grew up not quite understanding low vision. In fact as a child he thought that everybody had difficulty seeing. But it was only after Sam fully lost sight that he comprehended the value of encouraging others to overcome their struggles through persistence and devotion. And it is this commitment that has made Sam one of my home state's most respected and esteemed self-advocates. Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Sam Gleese!
I noticed on the program Ms. Casey Robertson. Is Casey Robertson here in the audience somewhere, or maybe coming in? You know, that's another great person we'll hear from from Mississippi, Hamilton, Mississippi, which is special to me because my PawPaw and MeMaw lived just north of there. My first time I ever drove as a kid, I drove his pickup truck when I was fourteen to Hamilton to get his hair cut. So I'm looking forward to that.
I've also been inspired by the selfless advocacy demonstrated by Anil Lewis; what a great friend. Many of you know Anil's story about how he has not allowed his own visual impairment to slow his goals and aspirations and how he tirelessly fights for disability issues on Capitol Hill. But you should also know that his personality and warmth are unmatched in Washington. It's quite refreshing to work with someone overflowing with optimism. Ya'll, I have to say, help me thank Anil for his great commitment.
Now, if I may, I'd like to share just a little bit about my family's story. You know there's always something personal that always drives us, isn't there? As you know, my job as a father has challenged me to help individuals living with disabilities. My son has inspired my mission as a lawmaker to promote innovative federal policies. My wife Sydney and I celebrate thirty-four years of marriage this August. We actually dated five and a half years before we got married. We would've got married sooner, but we were afraid to stay by ourselves.
I will have to tell you that we did not want children. We wanted grandchildren. We are blessed with two children: our son Livingston, who is twenty-four, and our daughter Maggie. Maggie, age twenty-one, is one of the most caring and driven individuals that I've ever known. In fact she's so motivated to begin her career that she recently graduated a year early from Mississippi State University [cheers from the Mississippi delegation]. I see we've got some Bulldog fans back there in the Mississippi section. But she's spending this summer interning at a law firm in Mississippi with former Governor Haley Barber, and in just a few weeks Sydney and I will put Maggie on a plane to France, where she'll work with EuroCopter as an intern for six months. While we're thrilled about this opportunity, like all parents we're having to adjust to the reality of her being so far away from Mom and Dad.
Now our son Livingston (twenty-four) lives with a situation called "fragile X syndrome." It's a genetic abnormality which affects over a hundred thousand Americans and is the most common inherited cause of intellectual disabilities. He recently completed his second year at Mississippi State University in a special program called the Access Program. This curriculum provides students with intellectual disabilities on-campus instruction and independent living, employment, and social skills. This summer Livingston's working two jobs at our local public library and the parks and recreation department. But during the school year he's living in the dorm at Mississippi State, eating in the cafeteria, going to classes—we think—he says he is.
In large part, our life journey of raising a special needs child is why Sydney and I are here with ya'll here today. As I mentioned, Livingston has fragile X syndrome. It took my wife and me a long time to accept the diagnosis, but, once we did, we began to see our son for who he is, for all of the exceptional qualities he holds as an individual, for the positive impact and the blessing he is to so many people that he comes in contact with each day, and for the many lessons that he has taught both of us in our journey as parents. We're taught that the Lord is no respecter of persons. I learned that from my son firsthand, because all during school, during inclusion classes—he treated the superintendent or the principal of the school the same as he treated the worker in the cafeteria.
We've come a long way—thank goodness—since the days when institutionalization was the predominant path for citizens with significant disabilities. But even today, after many advancements, additional public policy reform is required with respect to working, earning a living wage, saving for your future needs, and pursuing your own self-directed personal and professional goals that individuals without disabilities enjoy. Real transformation of publicly-financed supports for children and for people with disabilities not only requires a major shift, but it also requires bold, courageous, and innovative leadership. We must foster leaders at every level of government who not only share a common-value framework that believes in the competency and full citizenship of people with disabilities but also possess the courage to stand up to those entities and individuals who continue to perpetuate the old model of cyclical poverty and dependency. This means calling out those entities who continue to push for the preservation of their own financial self-interest at the expense of citizens with disabilities. This means making tough choices in the face of adversity. This means taking risk in order to build a better future for the next generation of citizens with disabilities. I believe that everyone—where appropriate, where it makes sense—should have the opportunity to pursue a post-secondary educational experience. Even more important, they should have a fair shot at an integrated employment opportunity as an adult.
This is why I joined the dialog on Capitol Hill about the importance of creating a comprehensive approach to the investment of public resources aimed at successfully transitioning youth with significant disabilities into adulthood. This effort has been initiated by an organization called the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination, a coalition of over a dozen disability groups. And a conversation that has been taking place for three years—over three years—evolved into three pieces of legislation that I've filed that are collectively known as the Transition Toward Excellence in Achievement and Mobility, or the TEAM Act. These three bills, which separate and propose how to modernize education, employment, and empowerment, impact these disability laws, collectively seek to promote transition from secondary school to meaningful post-secondary educational and employment opportunities with an emphasis on the eventual outcome leading to sustained full-time employment in an integrated setting at a livable wage, long-term career development and growth, and inclusion in the community setting through independent living and social engagement.
Given my strong interest in ensuring that every disabled worker has the opportunity to earn fair and moral pay, I joined the NFB-led initiative to eliminate a seventy-five-year-old labor law that allows employers to pay subminimum wage. This dated waiver program has left some disabled employees making pennies on the hour. At the same time some of these companies are paying their executives significant sums. Now I don't have a problem with a company CEO making an excellent wage, but not on the backs of those who are getting paid subminimum wage. We cannot allow this confused moral perspective to continue.
Now you may be thinking, "How is that taking place?" The answer is a 1938 labor law, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, that allows employers to receive special wage certificates. These US Department of Labor waivers permit companies to pay disabled workers less than the federal minimum wage, and in many situations much less than that. Over three-hundred-thousand—approaching four-hundred-thousand—individuals perpetually depended and are dependent upon social programs. By authorizing subminimum wages, the federal government is in essence forcing the disabled to rely on public benefits.
Some of you have experienced discrimination because of low vision. I know that Sam Gleese has shared stories with us. Early in his career employers lost interest in Sam after learning about his medical history. All Sam wanted to do was to earn a fair salary; like every husband he just wanted to provide for his wife and his daughter. This discrimination is backwards. The myth that disabled workers cannot be productive employees is awful and incorrect. Congress should be encouraging independence, not forcing disabled workers into an endless cycle of government dependence. It's simple: Meaningful work deserves fair pay. This dated provision prohibits workers with disabilities from reaching their full potential, and it must be repealed!
This effort has evolved into the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013, a bill that I've authored to end subminimum wage discrimination. We must shift away from the old paradigms of incapacity. Our public policies should support programs with positive, sustainable outcomes. Congress must eliminate the silos that exist within our current laws.
Now don't take my word alone. Anil Lewis, who has become a very dear friend of mine—and certainly in our office—once wrote brilliantly, "Our disabilities are neither a curse from God nor a penance for our sins. They are a manifestation of the life with which God has blessed us. And although the vessels which contain them are different, we have the same needs, desires, and abilities as everyone else." Well said, Anil, well said.
It's your needs, your desires, your abilities—for all of your strengths you deserve equal treatment. And each person in this room, every disabled worker in America, deserves a fair wage. The political will, timing, and dynamics seem to be converging in a way that makes action inevitable. True reform in this case is likely to entail not so much revolution but evolution, one that may take place over a number of years. But to fully realize our common goals, we must become and continue to be passionate advocates, both for ourselves and for our loved ones living with disabilities. This is why conventions just like this are so important. They raise our self-awareness, our visibility, and our effectiveness, and it certainly provides great, great motivation.
But search no further than my own son's experience to see the potential of individuals living with disabilities. My son's disability happens to be an intellectual disability. After Sydney and I read books and looked at all the literature on fragile X, we decided it was way too depressing, so we threw it away, and we decided that our son would live in a normal world and do the very best that he could. We've seen Livingston overcome hurdle after hurdle, and, may I just confess that many times I was the one guilty of putting a ceiling on our own son? I'll say, my wife Sydney here is the one that did all the heavy lifting. She's the one who took him to every speech therapy, every occupational therapy—all the things that had to be done. And never tell her that our son can't do something. We went through our struggles when he was little, and we were told that he had something wrong. It took us a couple of years to find out what it was. For us, much like what Anil wrote, we always claimed John chapter nine, verse three, as our promise. If you remember, that's where Jesus was going through and there was the man that was born blind, and the disciples asked, why was this man born blind? Was it because he sinned or his parents sinned? And what did Christ say in verse three? He said, "Neither. It happened so that, in him, the power of God might be demonstrated in his life." And we have seen that.
And another thing, too, is we look forward on how we change the hearts of people in the country as we work on this legislation, but we also work on how we make it better for each of us. In the last three years or so, before I came to Congress, our law office was close to the local high school, just five minutes or so away—we hired students out of the special ed department to come work part-time in my law office. When I came to DC, well they have a regular college student intern program, but they had nothing for students with intellectual disabilities. Three years ago we started a pilot program with a few offices and a few students from George Mason University out of the Mason Life Program. Three years later it's a permanent program; more than twenty House and Senate offices, Republicans and Democrats, are helping to make those options available to these students with intellectual disabilities.
I want to share a quick story, if I may. Our son Livingston, who, if he came in here you'd want to take him home with you, sweetest young man you'd ever meet—except for about thirty minutes a day--we just give him his space on that time. Livingston was the only student with special needs who sang all during junior high and high school choir. We had an incredible choral music program at our school. Livingston loves music. During his ninth-grade year of high school, we were actually watching a New York Yankees/Boston Red Sox playoff game. [Scattered cheers from the crowd] I'm not sure who was pulling for whom there, but that's a big game. So it's the seventh inning stretch, and we hear this most incredible voice singing "God Bless America," and it's Daniel Rodriguez, the singing policeman who became famous after 9/11, a beautiful tenor, who came to all the memorial services and sang different songs. We were just mesmerized by what happened. So I found out Daniel's schedule, and Livingston's surprise present that Christmas: four tickets to hear Daniel Rodriguez and the Atlanta Symphony do the Valentine's Day concert.
It was a huge arena, we had tickets on the fourth row, and Daddy found out who his publicist was and made arrangements for him to meet Daniel Rodriguez at his hotel before the concert. Guess what, I thought we'd just go in, get a quick picture, he'd sign an autograph, and we'd be done. Daniel Rodriguez sat down with Livingston for forty-five minutes, and they just talked like they'd been friends forever. We went to the concert that night, and they're two songs into it—beautiful music, as you can imagine—and Daniel Rodriguez, between songs, says, "I met the most amazing young man I've ever met today. Life had thrown him a curveball; he could have been bitter and angry, but he was the sweetest, happiest young man I've ever met, and he came all the way from Mississippi to hear me sing. Livingston Harper, where are you?” He had him stand up, and of course Sydney and I are sitting there crying; there's thirty-five hundred people in the arena, and everybody claps for my son.
Beautiful concert: We get to the end of the concert, and Daniel says, after the final standing ovation, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to sing one more song. Orchestra, relax—I don't have any more music, and I know you don't. But I'm going to sing a cappella because today, when I was talking to Livingston, he asked me if I was going to sing “God Bless America,” and I told him I would. So I'm going to sing that a cappella as we go." He walked over to our side of the stage and he said, "Livingston, I want you to remember what I told your daddy. One day you're going to let me know when you're doing a concert at Pearl High School in Mississippi, and I'm going to fly in, and you and I are going to sing together."
Two years later, Livingston's eleventh grade year, Daniel Rodriguez kept that promise and came to Pearl High School. When Livingston came out, you would have thought Elvis Presley had walked out on the stage. Fifteen hundred people in the auditorium—packed—we got to hear my son do a duet with Daniel Rodriguez, so listen to this: [The recording was played, and afterwards the convention audience enthusiastically applauded.]
God bless you. We're in this together. You inspire us. God bless each of you; thank you.