Wednesday, September 18, 2013


In the last week of August, just in time for Labor Day, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Obama Administration would pursue requiring federal contractors to fill at least 7 percent of their workforce with people with disabilities.

He was speaking at the American Legion convention, but the news resonates for all disabled Americans, not just the veterans he was addressing.

The specific target of 7 percent will give teeth to what has been a vague affirmative-action goal since President Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  It follows upon President Obama's earlier promise to make the federal government itself a model of equal opportunity employment.  But this additional step is particularly meaningful because it fulfills a 40-year-old bipartisan promise to, as Biden said, "help ensure equal rights and employment opportunities for veterans and people with disabilities."

I was not yet 10 when the Rehab Act became law, but I was already a wheelchair-user.  I was born with a neuromuscular condition called spinal muscular atrophy, which rendered me quadriplegic.  The Rehab Act was the first far-reaching piece of legislation defending the rights of folks like me.  It took four more years, and nationwide protests and sit-ins, for one of its most important provisions—Section 504, which requires equal access for the handicapped in federally funded institutions and programs—to become codified.  As a result, I was able to attend almost any college I wanted.  At least in theory.  The law went into effect in 1980, the very year I graduated from high school.

Of course, that transition wasn't easy and this one won't be either.  At the time, some universities were frank about the challenges of accommodating a student in a wheelchair.  "It'll be damn difficult," one admissions officer told my father.  Others bent over backwards to avert a lawsuit, even accepting me before I had actually filed an application. 

I ended up at Harvard, one of its first—if not the first—quadriplegic freshmen admitted.

After all these years I assumed that the Rehab Act had done its job.  It had gotten stuffy old places like Harvard to accommodate students like me.  I did not know about federal contractors, about Section 503.

Some might say that in clarifying and enforcing Section 503, which merely required federal contractors to "develop and implement a written affirmative action program," the Obama Administration is fixing a problem that didn't exist.  To me, though, it's more accurate to say the president went out of his way to bring people with disabilities into parity with other minorities and women.

Indeed, the issue was barely on disability-rights activists' back burners.  A hotter concern has been the UN's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to safeguard disability rights internationally.  Or how to stop Medicaid from shunting recipients into expensive, neglectful nursing homes instead of allowing them home-based, self-directed care--a cause the president seems to favor, in his support of the Olmstead ruling.

But employment disparities should not be overlooked.  In June, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that unemployment among employment-age people with disabilities was 14.2 percent, almost twice the 7.6 percent for the rest of the population.

Granted, some disabled people may be easier to employ than others.  In fact, an earlier Labor Department proposal for enforcing Section 503 called for a lower threshold of just 2 percent for the most severely disabled.  But we have to face the fact that there is still unwarranted prejudice.  Even with my Harvard degree, I never could find a job.  Instead, I took freelance writing assignments.  Voice-recognition computers certainly upped my productivity.  I'm using it to write this.

So it might take a little creative thinking, flexibility and technology to meet these employment goals.  Is flex-time an option?  Can some of the work be performed at home?  People who live with disabilities tend to be expert problem-solvers and self-starters.

My hope is that the new standard will help people with disabilities take control of their own lives and reduce their dependence on government subsidies. More than that, I hope it will help show the nondisabled coworkers what we're made of.  After all, the point of diversity and full inclusion is not just to benefit the marginalized.  It is to create the kind of synergies that can only come from expanding one's boundaries, from welcoming the new and different, and allowing the cross-fertilization of ideas. 

It's unfortunate this important piece of civil-rights progress was overshadowed by the following day's tributes to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  It's surely something Martin Luther King would have supported.