WASHINGTON - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) observed the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act yesterday, a breakthrough federal law for people with disabilities by hearing a variety of experts - including U.S. Senator Tom Harkin - discuss the state of rights and protections for disabled Americans. [Watch the video]
In three panels entitled "Past," "Present" and "Future," witnesses recalled the struggle for progress in disability law such as the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Panelists recalled sit-ins in the 1970s to make sure the Rehabilitation Act's provisions and regulations were fully implemented. They also discussed the present state of affairs in disability rights and prospects for future progress.
EEOC Chair Jacqueline Berrien reminded the group of how closely interrelated the disability movement has been with the broader civil rights movement.
"The 40th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which we observed yesterday, allowed us to honor the contributions of those who worked to secure passage of this important legislation and reflect upon its meaning for federal government employers and contractors today," said Berrien. "The Rehabilitation Act was the first major federal law to remove barriers to employment for people with disabilities, and it cleared the path for future passage of laws, which expanded access to employment opportunities in private, as well as public sector workplaces for people with disabilities."
EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum said, "Yesterday's event was a vivid reminder of how far the disability rights movement has come, and how far we still have to go. On the 40th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, I look forward to working with my colleagues on developing new regulations to implement Section 501 of the act so that the federal government can truly become a model employer of people with disabilities."
Several other speakers echoed the crucial importance of that cooperation. U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who has been one of the driving forces for legislation protecting and promoting the rights and opportunities for the disabled and was the Senate author of the ADA, said, "As those of you who are students of history know, the first iterations of the public vocational rehabilitation program date back to the 1920s. But it wasn't until the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that there was a federal mandate for a public vocational rehabilitation program to serve individuals with significant disabilities. More importantly, the 1973 Rehab Act, as we call it, also created the affirmative action programs in Title V of the act - including Section 503, which requires contractors to comply with affirmative action requirements, and which we have a new final rule on from the Department of Labor that was just announced two weeks ago."
Senator Harkin spoke on initiatives, programs and studies to help people with disabilities, such as the "High Expectations" report authored by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions , which he chairs. The report explores ways for further progress for what Harkin calls the "ADA Generation" - younger people with disabilities who grew up after the "bad old days" of low opportunities and low expectations for the disabled - a transition made possible by disability rights laws.
Panelists discussed various provisions of the Rehabilitation Act and the Workforce Investment Act, as well as issues regarding their effective implementation. Veteran disability rights attorney John Wodatch recalled how the campaign to institute the Rehabilitation Act was revolutionary in that it brought the focus from charity to civil rights and empowerment.
Debra A. Carr of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs cautioned, "Regulations do not a revolution make … it's not what we say, but that we implement what we say."
Claudia Gordon of the White House's Office of Public Engagements pointed out that the cost of accommodations for disabled people is often minimal and frequently only a one-time expense.
"But we need to get beyond focusing on the cost," she added, saying that increased opportunity for all is the salient point for the nation.
Jeff Rosen of the National Council on Disability drew attention to the problem of large numbers of people with disabilities work in sheltered workshops, the vast majority of which are run by nonprofits, commenting that we need to "stop this indentured servitude" and move people to competitive employment.
Ruby Moore of the Georgia Advocacy Office pointed out that she's an employer as well as an advocate.
"Each time I made an accommodation, I helped everybody," Moore said. Additionally, she said, employers need to pay attention to the growing number of returning military veterans with various physical and psychological disabilities.
The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws against employment discrimination, including the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. Further information is available at www.eeoc.gov.