Our celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month provides a chance to reflect on the progress achieved and the challenges that remain for people with disabilities around the country who can and want to work in the mainstream American economy. In 1999, in Olmstead v. L.C., the Supreme Court ruled that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities” constitutes discrimination, plain and simple.
For the last eight years, the Department of Justice has led vigorous Olmstead enforcement efforts to implement the Supreme Court’s community integration mandate. Because of our Olmstead efforts over the past few years, today 10,500 people with disabilities will have meaningful access to integrated services and supports to assist them in securing jobs with competitive wages.
Work produces far more than a paycheck. It affects our livelihood. It is a springboard for economic self-sufficiency, personal growth and self-esteem. Work also shapes how we spend our time, relate to our families and contribute to our community.
During Justice Department investigations in Rhode Island and Oregon, we found people with disabilities stuck in sheltered workshops who were capable of, and wanted to, work in their communities. As a result of our settlement agreements (Rhode Island and Oregon), with access to integrated employment services and supports, thousands of these people are on track to work in competitive, integrated jobs.
In Rhode Island – where an independent, court-appointed monitor continues to highlight impactful progress – Emily MacLaughlin, who loves spending time with kids, now works as a bus monitor near her home. Her duties include conducting a safety check for the bus driver, ensuring children can safely cross the road and checking for children who fall asleep inside the bus. Jerry D’Agostino, who used to sort, assemble and package jewelry in a sheltered workshop for well below minimum wage now works as an assistant chef at a daycare, where he recently earned a promotion, excels on the job and genuinely enjoys the work. Gio Mazariegos works at the Elmwood Health Center, where he serves meals, cleans and socializes with residents. His co-workers not only enjoy his company; they also depend on him to deliver key services to residents.
To read additional stories about people impacted by the department’s Olmstead enforcement efforts, please visit "Faces of Olmstead.”
Of course, even with transformative progress in recent years, we all recognize the urgent, unfinished business ahead. Too many people with disabilities still find themselves stuck in sheltered workshops, sometimes paid just pennies per hour, when they can and want to work in competitive, integrated employment.
Protecting the rights of people with disabilities to work in, and contribute to, their communities makes our entire country stronger. When we commit to supporting, protecting and empowering our neighbors to work, our communities flourish. Employers benefit from diligent, talented and innovative employees invested in the success of their companies. And when employees and employers thrive alongside one another, our entire economy prospers. During National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we need to spread that message across America.