PVA president Al Kovach Jr meets with Senator Bob Dole during an ADA celebration in Washington, D.C. Photo Christopher DiVirgilio
A number of federal agencies celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act
The Department of Labor held its ADA celebration on July 21 and featured former Senator Tom Harkin and Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware on a panel moderated by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. While marking past accomplishments, the speakers agreed, in the words of Sen. Harkin that the challenge for the next 25 years is all about “jobs, jobs, jobs” for people with disabilities. They discussed the need for the emerging information technology industry to make greater efforts at including those with disabilities into its workforce as well as customer base. Gov. Markell raised the importance of VEVRAA and federal contractor hiring of veterans with disabilities, noting a number of initiatives undertaken in his state to encourage employers to reach out to this population.
On July 23, the Department of Justice (DOJ), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Access Board jointly sponsored a lengthy forum on the achievements of the past 25 years and a forward examination of what still must be done to achieve the spirit of the ADA. Attorney General Loretta Lynch opened the event highlighting the DOJ’s efforts at helping over 46,000 people leave institutions under their Olmstead enforcement initiative. Sen. Harkin reflected on the four key principles of the ADA: full participation in society for people with disabilities; equal opportunities; independent living; and economic self-sufficiency. He emphasized that the country has done “pretty good” with the first three principles but more progress is needed when 60 percent of adults with disabilities are not in the workforce. Chai Feldblum, EEOC Commissioner, mentioned that agency’s role in providing relief for over 4000 people with disabilities who had been subjected to employment discrimination and pointed to a new web page on EEOC’s website that details many of their successful ADA enforcement efforts. The Executive Director of the Access Board, David Capozzi, introduced one of several special guests—former Senator Robert Dole—who admonished the crowd that, among the unfinished business of the ADA is to extend its principles through the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Sen. Harkin, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Dole, former Congressman Steve Bartlett and EEOC Commissioner Feldblum joined Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD) at a press conference on July 27 at which Mr. Hoyer and the others extolled the ADA as an amazing bipartisan achievement. Sen. Harkin reminded listeners that President George H. W. Bush had included passage of the ADA in his 1988 Presidential platform. Sen. Hatch recalled the role that Sen. Dole played in keeping the legislation moving forward.
That same day, The White House celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the ADA by hosting a Champions of Change event honoring nine disabilities advocates from around the country. Advocates discussed effective advocacy techniques and the future of disability advocacy in the coming years. Special guest speakers included professional athletes Jim Abbott and Derrick Coleman, Jr. who discussed the impact of disability on their careers.
The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) held its annual conference during the week of the ADA commemorations. At a workshop on July 27, a panel of young people with disabilities described how current Social Security disability program policies discourage them from entering the workforce. They called for changes to the definition of disability under Social Security and better training of agency personnel in return to work programs and policies in order to reduce barriers to employment for disability program beneficiaries. That night, NCIL and the American Association of People with Disabilities sponsored a gala celebration honoring many of the pioneers of the ADA’s passage. PVA was proud to be a sponsor of this event.
On July 28, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Ranking Minority Member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, conducted a Hill briefing on Creating and Protecting a Diverse Workforce as part of the weeklong series of events. Featured presenters included Jill Houghton, Executive Director of the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN), a coalition of major companies that have committed to hiring people with disabilities as part of their workforce diversity programs.
PVA also held a 25th anniversary reception on July 28 during which Sen. Dole was honored with the inaugural presentation of the Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award. The award reflects on the lifetime of service by Sen. Dole to veterans and all people with disabilities. Guest attendees included: VA Secretary Bob McDonald; Sen. John McCain (R-AZ); Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Democratic Leader; Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Democratic Whip; and Mrs. Elizabeth Dole.
U.S. Army veteran Haywood Thomas visits a vender booth during 25th anniversary ADA celebrations in Washington, D.C. Photo Christopher DiVirgilio
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program wrapped up the week on July 29 with a morning devoted to the myriad ways the department supports veterans with disabilities. Featured speakers included Allison Hickey, Under Secretary for Benefits, who noted that her agency processed over 1.32 million claims for disability compensation in FY 2014 alone. Georgia Coffey, the Deputy Assistance Secretary in the VA Office of Diversity and Inclusion talked about the VA as a federal employer. The agency has the highest level of employment of people with targeted disabilities of any cabinet level department and has adopted many best practices including creation of a centralized fund for reasonable accommodations, using the Computer and Electronic Assistance Program for IT accommodations, establishing a central fund for its workforce recruitment program that supports internships at no cost to its regional offices, and correlating performance measures with diversity metrics.
The keynote speaker was Bob Williams, Special Advisor to the Social Security Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy. Jack Kammerer, Director of the VA’s VR&E program became acquainted with Williams through the federal government’s Curb Cuts to the Middle Class initiative. Recognizing the overlap in programs affecting veterans with disabilities, the VA and SSA have been partnering on an ongoing basis to see how those agencies can work together for the benefit of their customer bases. The day concluded with a panel of experts describing their organization’s services to veterans with disabilities and included the Army’s Warrior Transition Program, the Wounded Warrior Regiment, National Disability Rights Network and Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. PVA was represented on the panel by James Arndt, Operation PAVE vocational rehabilitation counselor. He discussed PAVE’s philosophy of early intervention with injured veterans thanks to PAVE’s collocation in VA medical centers and its “lifetime” commitment with veterans and their families.