|President Obama signs the executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract works. Photo courtesy of CPSD.|
During his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama announced an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour. The next day, January 29, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez held a regularly scheduled outreach call with the disability community to discuss administration activities of interest.
Though it was not on the call agenda, one of my colleagues from the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination (CPSD), Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), asked whether federal contractors paid less than the federal minimum wage would be included in this executive order. Ari was referring to the fact that thousands of federal contractors are paid subminimum wages because they have disabilities, due to an arcane provision that exempts businesses holding special wage certificates from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This allows these businesses to pay workers with disabilities subminimum wages, sometimes as low as mere cents an hour.
Perez replied that the White House did not have the authority to prevent subminimum wages for workers employed by employers with 14(c) certificates. We challenged this suggestion during the call, and immediately began to craft an advocacy campaign to educate the administration about the archaic law it was defending and urge it to include workers with disabilities in the executive order. As the former Department of Justice civil rights division chief who enforced the 1999 Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C., which mandated that Americans with disabilities must receive services in the “most integrated setting,” we knew we had a champion in Perez.
Our approach was twofold: first, to build a broad coalition of disability, social justice, civil rights and labor advocacy organizations. This served two purposes: to get the administration’s attention and to prevent the infighting that too often plagues individual constituencies, including disability groups. By preventing these internal quarrels over technical issues, we were able to focus on confronting the main issue of unequal rights for people with disabilities. Our first step to achieve this was to produce an organizational sign-on letter that was distributed across a wide network of potential supporters.
Our second tactic was to craft a simple message – one of fairness and decency – that appealed to all audiences: that the president’s executive order was wrong to exclude disabled workers simply because they are disabled. As Obama himself stated during the State of the Union, “If you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.” Though he may not have realized it, many of the workers who perform these jobs are employed through a network of providers that receive federal contracts for goods and services, and are able to profit by paying workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage.
Beyond this simple message, an important part of our effort to inform not just the White House but also the media and the public about this inequity required additional education about the life experienced by many Americans with disabilities. It is not simply about disability, but also forced poverty, economic injustice, wage inequity and civil rights.
Most people have no idea that government policies dictating how these citizens may access their benefits serve to drive them into poverty and consign them to a life on the economic margins.
The President’s order and our campaign to broaden it allowed us the opportunity to explain how in order to access the very benefits that they need to survive, citizens with disabilities must qualify for Medicaid by applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The benefits we’re talking about include employment, housing, and transportation support, as well as the health care benefits that are still denied in many states. This program, created in 1951, was originally called “Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled,” a title that reflected the prevailing view that those with the most significant disabilities were never expected to live long lives or contribute to society in any meaningful way and would simply be locked away in institutions, far from public view.
The lack of attention to disabled workers in the executive order was particularly striking because it came at a time when the administration was starting a national conversation on poverty and income inequality. CPSD seized this opportunity to ensure that disability was not left out of the conversation. We made our case, not only with the administration but also in the media, on everything from radio talk shows to news reports and conversations with leading columnists.
CPSD’s letter to Obama and Perez was delivered to the White House and Department of Labor and, we were told, debated internally. Our partner groups and allies sent action alerts to our grassroots membership, which responded with letters and emails urging the administration to use its authority to include workers with disabilities in the executive order. To its credit, the administration listened, and it responded by including these workers in the executive order to the extent possible under the law.
We were able to overcome the administration’s initial “no” on including these workers because we came together to strategically and collectively voice a simple and powerful message. We were able to build a broad and powerful coalition of stakeholders beyond CPSD and beyond the disability world. Without a partner that was willing to take a chance on us and to provide the funding so that we could begin to build our capacity, we would not be in a place to wage a campaign of that significance.
CPSD was created in 2007 when three family-led groups – the National Down Syndrome Society, the Autism Society, and the National Fragile X Foundation – came together to create a coalition that would focus on modernizing this outdated system. In just six years, CPSD has grown to 22 groups.
As our coalition has expanded, our mission has evolved as well. We have come to understand that as parents, self-advocates, siblings, educators and practitioners, we have an enormous opportunity to inform and educate policymakers, families and the media about a discriminatory system that is little known about or understood – one that creates barriers that keep citizens with disabilities trapped in lives of isolation and low expectations. These low expectations are what lead to the segregation of our loved ones, and this segregation is what leads to the forced poverty that they experience.
In July of 2013, CPSD won its first grant award from the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF), which seeks to increase awareness of and work to improve the inclusion of people with disabilities in the United States and Israel through leadership projects done in partnership primarily with Jewish organizations. RFF provided CPSD with a capacity-building grant that, in a short time, has enabled us to expand our organizational capabilities.
Our partnership with RFF allowed us to create the CPSD Ruderman Public Policy Fellows program, through which we awarded three fellowships to outstanding professionals in the field of public policy for Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These fellows are helping CPSD advance and expand its expertise in public policy by bringing their academic and field experience to policy development. In addition, CPSD’s partnership with RFF has allowed us to bring significantly greater reach to our communications, media and public affairs activities, which is a major factor in fueling our growth and influence and something a small, young and growing organization desperately needs.
Several factors have made the Ruderman Family Foundation such an important part of CPSD’s recent success. The organization prefers to position itself as our key partner, not just a funder. In this way, it is invested in our success because it is not simply focused on fixed outcome measures, which can limit the scope of a young and dynamic organization’s ability to evolve with ever-changing external demands.
RFF has been flexible in the sense that we have had to make changes in the manner that we allocate funds; we are in a period of enormous change in disability policy and our coalition is very progressive in its policy positions. As our partner, RFF has been supportive of our need to adjust our course, depending on an ever-changing political landscape, the needs of our partner groups and external stakeholders and, most importantly, the contributions of the families and individuals whom we serve.
“I believe that all strategic philanthropic organizations are seeking to achieve maximum impact in the areas and communities of their focus,” said RFF president Jay Ruderman. “By investing in public advocacy for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the United States, we feel that our foundation can achieve lasting systematic change. We took a chance with CPSD, but believe we are beginning to see the very real impact it has had on policy in the U.S. for the benefit of people with disabilities and their inclusion in our society.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Ruderman Family Foundation did indeed take a chance on us. We have submitted our application for 501(c)3 status and are awaiting IRS approval. In the meantime, one of our partner groups, the National Disability Institute (NDI), acts as our fiscal intermediary. Groups like ours are often in an impossible catch-22: we can’t raise funds because we don’t have our 501(c)3, but we need to build our organizational capacity so that we are sustainable once we are established for our exempt purpose(s). The Ruderman Family Foundation saw the opportunity to partner with us because we have enormous reach, expertise and potential.
The time to change the circumstances of those with disabilities is now. It is one of the last great fights for civil rights and social and economic justice.
Allison Hassett Wohl is the executive director of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination, a coalition of 22 national groups advocating for the full inclusion of citizens with significant disabilities. She is the mom of three boys, the youngest of whom has Down syndrome.