Thoughts on Joining the AbilityOne Commission

Swearing in ceremony

Last week, I was sworn in as a citizen member of the Ability One Commission, together with three wonderful disability advocates: Bryan Bashin, Chris Brandt and Gabe Cazares. You can read a joint statement from the four of us, as well as individual bios and statements, that we issued after being appointed by President Biden to the Commission.

I am looking forward to the work — and work it will be. This is the moment to significantly increase the employment of people with significant disabilities and we must use all levers available to do so. The AbilityOne program is one important lever and the program should become as effective as possible within the current statutory and regulatory framework. But we must also think creatively how government procurement writ large can be used to advance the goals we all share.

Towards that end, I look forward to working with my fellow citizen members and our government agency colleagues on the Commission, Jeff Koses, a Senior Procurement Executive at GSA and our intrepid and committed Chair, Jennifer Sheehy, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor, and Verna Winters, Director for Acquisition Policy and Management in the Office of Acquisition Management at the Department of Commerce. Nominees from other government agencies are pending at the White House and I look forward to working with them as well. Finally, I look forward to working with the staff of the AbilityOne Commission and with the Office of the Inspector General, including the Acting IG, Stefania Pozzi Porter.

All of us, collectively and individually, are tasked with the important work of increasing employment opportunities for people who are blind and people with other significant disabilities, and to ensure that such individuals have good, solid jobs in our economy.

I worked with many fellow disability advocates in supporting Congress as it enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, in 1990. The ADA was a ground-breaking law. People with disabilities — defined very broadly — finally received anti-discrimination protection in employment, public accommodations, transportation, communications, and other areas. In 2008, I again worked with many fellow disability advocates to support Congress in enacting the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which restored a broad definition of disability in response to court decisions that had narrowed the number of people with disabilities who could claim anti-discrimination protection under the law.

The ADA provides essential protection for millions of people with non-manifest physical and mental conditions (everything from diabetes to heart conditions to cancer to depression), as well as for people with manifest and significant disabilities. But the ADA has limitations in how far it can go in putting a dent in the unacceptably high unemployment rate and underemployment rate of people with significant disabilities. Too many people with significant disabilities do not get jobs in the first place, and many people with significant disabilities are employed in jobs below their potential.

People with significant disabilities are those who are blind, deaf, have mobility impairments, have intellectual disabilities, have disabilities such as cerebral palsy or being on the autism spectrum, or have significant psychiatric disabilities. For such individuals, barriers to employment often don’t occur in a manner where they can be successfully challenged as discriminatory under the ADA. Rather, these individuals simply don’t get past the barrier of being hired in the first place — over and over again.

That is why the affirmative action provisions of federal law that apply to federal agencies and federal contractors (rather than solely the anti-discrimination provisions of federal law) are so important. Under Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as enforced by regulations from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, all federal agencies must seek to achieve a goal of 2% representation of people with significant disabilities in their workforce, as well as an overall goal of 12% representation of people with all disabilities in their workforce. (See EEOC Fact Sheet) Under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, as enforced by regulations from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) at the Department of Labor, all federal contractors must seek to achieve a goal of 7% representation of people with all disabilities in their workforce. (See OFCCP Fact Sheet) Although the Department of Labor’s approach is more limited and less effective than that of the EEOC, because its approach does not require a separate focus on individuals with significant disabilities, it is still an important government requirement. I look forward to the EEOC and the OFCCP enforcing these affirmative action provisions as vigorously as possible. Indeed, I hope the Department of Labor will modify its Section 503 regulations so that they align with the EEOC’s Section 501 regulations.

There is yet another mechanism that the federal government can use to increase the employment of people with significant disabilities. That is the mechanism of federal procurement. This is where the AbilityOne Commission can play an important role. There have been good assessments and evaluations of the AbilityOne program in recent years, and I look forward to helping modernize the program to the fullest extent possible. We also have an opportunity now to think broadly and creatively about how government contracting writ large can incentivize employers to hire people with significant disabilities. This is a vision worth developing, particularly with the focus now on “building back better” in our country and our economy.

This work will not be easy. But our responsibility is to at least start the work and see how much headway we can make. I’m looking forward to working with all stakeholders in developing this vision, working on its implementation, and making real change.

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A snapshot of the virtual swearing-in ceremony. The four of us with our hands raised to take the oath are the four new citizen members. (Scroll to the left to see everyone. And check out my beaming sister in the second box!)