Approximately 54 million people – one out of every five Americans – have a disability. In recent decades, our society has made great strides toward the inclusion of disabled Americans in all aspects of their communities. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the subsequent Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. LC affirmed the rights of people with disabilities and called on the government to ensure access to cost-effective community-based services. However, many people with disabilities still face unnecessary barriers to inclusion in their communities.
As a founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus (BDC) since 2001, I have had the opportunity to focus on these issues, which are so important to me and countless others across the country. Under my leadership, the BDC has hosted briefings on some of the topics most critical to people with disabilities and their families - ranging from the challenges faced by those attempting to return to the workforce to the shortage of direct service providers available to offer quality care to those who need support.
In order to assure the full implementation and enforcement of disability nondiscrimination laws, the right of every American to achieve both social and economic self-sufficiency, as well as to promote comprehensive health care, I remain committed to the following principles.
Access to Community Services and Supports
Home and community-based (HCBS) waivers in Medicaid have provided greater flexibility, independence and community integration for children and adults with disabilities who receive care outside of more costly and restrictive institutional settings. By further exploring and supporting home and community based programs, as well as other community supports like respite care, we can reduce costs to the system and improve the quality of care for individuals with disabilities across the lifespan.
Respite care provides temporary relief for families engaged in the full-time task of caring for their aging or disabled loved ones with special needs. Family caregivers provide approximately 80 percent of long term care to the chronically ill. In fact, there are over 65 million family caregivers in the U.S., and reports estimate the annual economic value of uncompensated family caregiving to be about $450 billion, more than total Medicaid spending in 2009. That is why I plan on reintroducing the Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act to streamline the delivery of planned and emergency respite services, decreasing the need for professional long-term care that results in significant savings for the health care system and taxpayers.
International Disability Rights
Protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities should not be just a domestic priority; it should be a global imperative. That is why I joined my colleagues in the House and Senate to raise awareness of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is the first new human rights treaty of the 21st Century adopted by the United Nations and further advances the human rights of the 650 million people with disabilities worldwide. I was honored to attend the signing of the Presidential Proclamation on July 24, 2009, stating that the United States would become an official signatory to the Treaty along with 153 other countries. I am deeply disappointed that on December 4, 2012, the Senate fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the CRPD in a 61-38 vote. I will continue to work with my Congressional colleagues to advocate for ratification by the Senate, so the United States remains a world leader in international human rights.
Removing Obstacles to Health and Wealth
Health care is a major barrier that has limited employment options and wealth accumulation for the disabled. Only 22 percent of taxpayers with disabilities have incomes over $40,000. Many of them live in poverty and rely on public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid for health care services and supports. Because a person loses access to these programs if they earn income above the poverty level, they have no incentive to seek employment and become productive, tax-paying citizens. For those that do work, the fear of losing employer-sponsored insurance can limit job mobility. The health reform law will begin to address the problem of portability, but we still have work to do in adjusting asset and income limits of public programs so people are empowered to seek employment.
That is why I support H.R. 647, the ABLE Act, which would give individuals with disabilities access to the same type of savings instruments that millions of Americans utilize through 401(k), IRA, and College Savings Accounts. It would enable families to establish a savings account for specified education, medical and community-based services, including housing, transportation, employment training, and supports for their child without disqualifying that child from receipt of funds from entitlement programs which are vital in ensuring their quality of life. This bill will enable individuals with disabilities to live a meaningful and productive life without suffering crushing costs, as is too often the case, and will ultimately help individuals become less dependent on public benefits.
Encouraging Employment of People with Disabilities
Employers are learning how to make workplaces more accessible, utilizing assistive technologies and reasonable accommodations to open doors for employees with disabilities. Businesses across the country are finally recognizing the innate potential of the disabled community. Many individuals with disabilities have the desire and capability to work, as well as exceptional talents to offer, and with a little awareness and accommodation, our economy and society can reap countless economic and social rewards.
There are numerous programs that companies can institute to create a more accommodating, inclusive and productive atmosphere for all their workers, including flexible schedules, telecommuting, mentoring programs and job training. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding a single ramp, or ensuring that a computer has voice software that can make all the difference. I believe passionately that people with disabilities are the greatest untapped resource. We must work to ensure that they can take advantage of opportunities to empower themselves and enrich their communities.
Full Implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act
I am proud to have played a key role in making historic improvements to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the years since passage of the ADA in 1990, court decisions have increasingly narrowed the definition of a disability to exclude many Americans who are discriminated against in the workplace based on a legitimate disabling condition. Together with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and many others, I worked tirelessly to pass the ADA Amendments Act, which was signed into law on July 25, 2008. This landmark legislation reaffirms the ADA's protections and upholds the ideals of equality and opportunity on which this country was founded.
I continue to work to enhance educational outreach to businesses regarding ADA compliance and bridge the gap between the disability community and the business community to ensure a more accessible, inclusive and productive atmosphere for everyone.