This past weekend marked the 15th anniversary of a landmark event in disability rights history — the Supreme Court’s ruling in Olmstead v. L.C., commonly referred to as the “Olmstead decision.” This decision set the stage for one of the most revolutionary chapters in our nation’s civil rights movement: With that case, our nation’s highest court affirmed what disability rights advocates already knew — that people with significant disabilities, like all people, have the right to fully participate in their communities. For most of us, a big part of participating in the community is working in the community.
Olmstead requires that publicly-financed services to individuals with significant disabilities, including employment services, must be provided in the most integrated setting possible. The challenge is to ensure that our policies and practices do, in fact, prioritize the delivery of services to people with disabilities that promote dignity and high expectations rather than those that continue to segregate them from society.
In practical terms, this means making sure that our tax dollars go to supporting individuals with significant disabilities to attain real jobs, receive fair wages and fully participate in our country’s economic mainstream.
To address these challenges, we in the Office of Disability Employment Policy have made Employment First a major policy focus area in recent years. Employment First is a systems-change approach to disability employment clearly aligned with the intent of Olmstead. The “first” refers to the idea that integrated employment should be the expected outcome for youth and adults with significant disabilities. And by that we mean jobs in typical, community-based settings where most people do not have disabilities, and where people with disabilities earn at least minimum wage and are paid directly by their employer.
We in ODEP have been working hard to support state Employment First efforts through our Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program. The program provides states interested in adopting an Employment First approach to service delivery with intensive technical assistance, training and coaching to do so. We also host an Employment First online Community of Practice, through which 32 participating states also receive technical assistance and share best practices.
While progress has been made since Olmstead, much work remains to be done and we won’t stop until the Employment First philosophy is adopted nationwide. That’s why last year I applauded enforcement actions taken by the department’s Wage and Hour Division to redress numerous legal violations against individuals employed by a Rhode Island disability services provider, including unfair compensation. As part of the resolution, the City of Providence, Providence School Board and the service provider in question agreed to pay more than $250,000 in back wages to the affected workers.
In order to ensure all violations under all applicable laws were redressed, we also referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Division of Civil Rights. They in turn negotiated an agreement to transition approximately 2,000 Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities into integrated employment and community-based day services.
Fifteen years after the Olmstead decision, this example drives home the critical need for all of us — not just as professionals, but as citizens and human beings — to ensure that it and other advancements in disability rights amount to more than just words on paper. We must ensure they advance workplace inclusion, a key component of full community inclusion.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.