Civil Rights Breakthrough for People with Disabilities

by Bob Lawhead

On April 8, 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced “a landmark settlement agreement between the United States and the state of Rhode Island, vindicating the civil rights of approximately 3,250 individuals across the state with intellectual or developmental disabilities.”  This case constitutes the nation’s first statewide settlement involving the unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities in segregated sheltered workshops and day facilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  It is well known that this same kind of unnecessary segregation is presently supported by nearly every state in the union.

The Rhode Island – DOJ settlement agreement states that Rhode Island will redirect state funding from segregated to integrated services over a ten year period.  The settlement demands a shift from segregated facilities to supported employment programs resulting in real jobs with real wages – typical jobs out in the community, the kind of jobs available to people without disabilities.  These are jobs that pay a competitive wage and that are individual jobs (not “group” employment, as we see sometimes with respect to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities).  Supported employment programs are designed for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and other job-seekers with significant disabilities so they can work in the community.  Supported employment refers to paid work, in integrated settings with ongoing support.  It is a strategy for locating jobs that match a person’s skills, abilities and preferences.  Once hired, job training is provided for the new employee with a disability.  The new employee and their employer then receive ongoing consultation and support on an as-needed basis.  These supports are provided for the life of the employment relationship, include training and consultation to assure employment success, and are provided at no cost to the employer.

We must move forward to correct the injustice of state-sponsored work segregation for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  People are tired of being placed in these sweatshops where pay is below minimum wage and demeaning tasks do not match up with individual worker aptitude or ability.  Professionals currently understand how to provide effective supports to people who desire regular employment.  Recent research has found that integrated employment options actually cost the state less than ongoing segregated work programs.  Most importantly, people with disabilities and their families are telling us in increasing numbers that they want to take their rightful place in the regular workforce.  It’s time to take advantage of the contribution people with disabilities can make to the workplace and their local communities.  The individual states should do the right thing and eliminate this needless segregation which has been referred to as “economic servitude and social exile” (New York Times editorial, Doubly Disabled in Life: April 11, 2014).

During her announcement of the Rhode Island settlement agreement, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels stated, “This year, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. It ended segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by facilities that served the general public. Similarly, the ADA calls for an end to segregation based on disability. Yet, approximately 450,000 people with intellectual or developmental disabilities across our nation spend their days in segregated sheltered workshops or in segregated day programs.”  She went further to say, “Unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities is harmful to people with disabilities and to our communities. We cannot wait another day to change. And we won’t.”  The states should wake up and embrace “Employment First” before DOJ comes knocking on their door!

Bob Lawhead serves as CEO of Community Link in Boulder.  He is Public Policy Chair for the Colorado Association of People Supporting Employment First (CO-APSE) and Co-Chairs the National Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) Public Policy Committee.  Bob also serves as the Colorado Project SEARCH Statewide Director, is a member of the TASH Employment Committee and is an advisor to Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) of Boulder County.