Melvyn Tanzman, Executive Director
Reform regarding how people with disabilities are disenfranchised and marginalized in our nation is long overdue, despite the historic passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The ADA will be 25 years old in July 2015 and disability activists in Westchester County and across the nation are planning educational commemorative activities. Passage of the ABLE Act would be a fitting way to mark this anniversary.
Having said that, let me give a cautionary commentary that the ABLE Act may not bring true equity and opportunity to many individuals with disabilities. The ABLE Act’s provisions acknowledge that independence and dignity is essentially an economic matter. People with disabilities often cannot be assured a level playing field because of potential loss of essential benefits and services should they realize their the goal of economic self-sufficiency and a productive life. Unfortunately, the ABLE Act will only help people with disabilities who become disabled before the age of 26. A recent statement by a national leader, Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living reflects this criticism, “It’s completely arbitrary, Why 26? Why not 27, or 28 or 30?”. In addition, the Act will only assist if the person with a disability or their family has the means to establish and contribute to a special account. While it will help those people who have the means to use this financial tool, it provides no relief or help to those with low and moderate incomes. Discrimination and inequity remains a matter of economic justice.
Allow me to suggest a modest proposal that may address this continued inequity. During his first term President Obama promised a real Jobs Program. We all know the fate of this initiative given the partisan logjam in Washington DC. Well, suppose our elected representatives consider a more modest initiative, whereby people with disabilities of any age are offered government subsidized jobs in the form of paid training and internships, to give them the opportunity to achieve real independence. The history of our nation has several precedents that helped our citizens improve their lot in life. The U.S. was pulled out of the Great Depression partially due to the opportunities provided by the “Works Progress Administration” which employed millions of unemployed people to carry out public works projects. In 1973, during the Republican administration of President Richard M Nixon, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), was enacted by the Congress to train workers and provide them with jobs in the public service for 1-2 years. It successfully gave participants a marketable skill that would allow them to move to a job in the open market. Unfortunately, as this was prior to the passage of the ADA and the emergence of the disability rights movement, most people with disabilities never benefited from this program.
Empowerment of people with disabilities will require more resources and support than the ABLE Act provides. How about a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act for People with Disabilities? It’s a commitment we must make to correct years of inequity and few opportunities.