An Opportunity for People With Disabilities
BARBARA MERRILL AND HELENA BERGER AND KELLY BUCKLAND | MAY 3, 2017
Due in large part to the failure of the government to efficiently coordinate disability services, we continue to fall short of meeting the values enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act to empower people with disabilities with access to opportunities available to other Americans. However, President Donald Trump has the opportunity to create a legacy in disability rights. This opportunity is exemplified by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pick for the National Council on Disability, Neil Romano, in his paper “A Proposal Designed to Help Strengthen the Services Delivered by the Federal Government to People with Disabilities,” which advocates for the creation of the National Office of Disability Coordination.
Nearly one in five Americans has a disability, making people with disabilities the largest minority group in the country. Despite the sheer number of people that make up this group, people with disabilities remain one of the most marginalized groups, experiencing unemployment and poverty rates that are double those of other populations. Nevertheless, by fulfilling his campaign promise to consider, and then act upon the creation of the NODC, Trump can significantly improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Trump said during his presidential campaign that “my administration is committed to a comprehensive review of all programs related to people with disabilities with the mandate to modernize, streamline and disentangle the current bureaucratic labyrinth with programs strewn across multiple departments, agencies and offices with little or no coordination. We will consider the possible creation of a National Office of Disability Coordination.” The NODC would coordinate federal agencies and bring together the myriad services that currently exist for people with disabilities. Currently, services for individuals with disabilities are scattered across multiple agencies, including the departments of Education, Health, Transportation, and Housing. There is little done to coordinate these entities. This creates a fragmented service delivery system with separate and disjointed policies that the individuals and their families must navigate.
The area in need of the most improvement is employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. There is a huge gap between the number of people with disabilities that want to work and those that are employed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.5 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2015, compared to 65 percent of people without disabilities. The NODC can efficiently connect people who want to work to the most appropriate resources, which will result in better outcomes and greater self-sufficiency for these individuals. Additionally, this will help meet the president’s job goals and benefit the economy overall.
The NODC will also be critical in ensuring that a qualified direct support professional workforce is available to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Currently, we are facing a workforce crisis for direct support professional that results in almost half of the workforce turning over each year. It is imperative that resources be used efficiently to support a workforce adequate to meet the historically unprecedented demand.
The White House has a prime opportunity to change the bureaucratic history of disability services in this nation. By identifying gaps, coordinating services, and eliminating duplication of services across federal agencies, the NODC would improve coordination and reduce fragmentation in our current disability infrastructure. The NODC needs to be a seat at the table in the president’s cabinet to not only maximize the impact of disability services but also to improve lives of one of the largest, yet most marginalized populations in our communities.
Barbara Merrill is the CEO of the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR) and represents over 1,200 private providers of community services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities around the country. Helena Berger is the CEO and president of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), which serves as a convener, connector, and catalyst for change, increasing the political and economic power of people with disabilities. Kelly Buckland is the executive director of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), the longest-running national cross-disability grassroots organization run by and for people with disabilities.