Disability Policy the Subject of a Virtual Town Hall with the White House

On Thursday, July 14, the White House sponsored a virtual town hall meeting from 1 – 2 p.m. on the issue of disability policy in the Obama administration. The town hall featured top White House disability policy staff, including Kareem Dale, Jeff Crowley, and Rebecca Cokley, who answered questions posed from online submissions. The meeting was called to address the questions and concerns of those with disabilities and others in the community. The idea was to emphasize the President’s stance on major disability policy issues, and discuss how the administration plans to address each. The town hall included four major issues: employment, the debt ceiling and Medicaid, community inclusion and youth with disabilities.

An ongoing issue is the disparity in employment opportunities for those with disabilities. The June jobs report shows unemployment has risen to 16.9 percent among people with disabilities and is still climbing. The White House representatives had a lot of advice for job-seekers with disabilities. Town hall participants were reminded of the 2010 executive order signed by President Obama to hire 100,000 people with disabilities to positions within the federal government. This represents a major step forward in involving the disability community in actively shaping the government and policies that impact the disability community. As Rebecca Cokley stated, without the involvement of the disability community, there can be no effective disability policy.

The panel also noted the White House is actively collecting resumes from people with disabilities and pointed out that the Schedule A hiring authority within the federal government is doing the same. Participants were reminded to carefully craft resumes that focused on their skills, and how they can benefit the agencies or organizations in which they are seeking jobs. This commitment to disability employment extends to private sector employment opportunities as well. The panelists remarked on the administration’s strides in providing employment for individuals with disabilities within the financial, healthcare and entertainment sectors and pushes into other areas of the private sector are expected to be made.

Next on the agenda were several questions about the national debt, raising the debt ceiling, and how this will affect people with disabilities who rely on entitlement programs. The panelists said the President believes these services are especially crucial now to support individuals with disabilities and will only consider cutting funding for these services as a last resort. (What, exactly, constituted a last resort what not clarified.)  Kareem Dale explained that the President sees the services offered by Medicaid as especially important to the growth of the economy. By providing support for people with disabilities, the family members and the individuals receiving support become free to spend less time on homecare issues and are able to seek and obtain employment. This increases the productivity of those individuals, which in turn, has a direct and positive impact on the American economy.

There were also several questions on community inclusion for people with disabilities, particularly around the issue of housing. The most significant point made on this issue was that, not only is housing important, but it must be integrated and not segregated housing. Individuals with disabilities must be treated as equals, and this is the most important way we can foster such an environment. Not only must housing be integrated, it must be accessible, and both the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice are constantly working to ensure more housing is being made available that conforms to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Panelists noted the administration recognizes that housing and healthcare are directly related, and those with stable and affordable housing have an overall higher level of health and quality of life. This is why the housing issue appears so high on the President’s list of disability policy issues to address. Also included in the discussion was the need for community inclusion and the Department of Justice’s Project Civil Access, which is designed to ensure cities and counties “comply with the ADA by eliminating physical and communication barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in community life.”

The final issue covered in the virtual town hall was youth with disabilities. This is a particularly important issue as our youth represent the future leaders of the disability community. The panelists made clear that President Obama is not only interested in actively seeking out the participation of people with disabilities in the policy making process, but particularly, in engaging younger members of the disability community. The administration has sponsored several youth roundtables on disability policy. In addition, the federal government is committed to offering internships and career development opportunities to individuals with disabilities. For example, the White House almost always has several interns with disabilities, and the Office of Personnel Management, under the leadership of Christine Griffin, is hiring interns with a broad range of disabilities.

The message from the panelists in this town hall is President Obama wants to involve the disability community in the policy making process, especially on the issues of employment, housing, and healthcare. Holding a town hall is a good starting point. Here’s hoping for continued dialogue with the White House on issues of importance for the disability community.