Obama’s Legacy on Disabilities
Barak Obama and his efforts to help the disabled.
Author: Attorney Lonnie Roach
“Each day, Americans with disabilities play a critical role in forging and shaping the identity of our Nation. Their contributions touch us all through personal experience or through that of a family member, neighbor, friend, or colleague. We grow stronger as a Nation when Americans feel the dignity conferred by having the ability to support themselves and their families through productive work.”― Barack Obama
Since his inauguration on January 20, 2009, Obama has made the economic and social advancement of those with disabilities a priority in his administration.
He had many promises in his campaign regarding disabilities and his ability to meet those promises has been mixed. Let’s take a look at some of the policies the Obama administration has enacted over the past few years that affect those with disabilities:
July 26, 2010- Obama enacts Executive Order 13548.
This order encourages Americans with disabilities to apply for jobs in the Federal government. At the time the law was passed, people with disabilities made up only 5% of the Federal workforce. Ten years prior, the Clinton administration passed an executive order requiring the Federal government to hire 100,000 people with disabilities, but the order was never implemented. Obama’s order was more effective. By 2012, nearly 12% of the Federal government was comprised of workers with disability. Between 2011 and 2014, the government hired 80,500 people with disabilities.
June 22, 2011- Obama recommits to enforcing the Olmstead ruling.
Olmstead was a Supreme Court case where it was ruled that isolating disabled individuals in institutions is a form of discrimination. In order to further that position, the Obama administration has emphasized the importance of the disabled participating in their respective communities. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has encouraged states to transition from large, centralized institutions to smaller, community-based services. The purpose of Olmstead is to help keep disabled individuals as active participants in their communities rather than sequestering them into institutions.
September 24, 2013- The Department of Labor published rules affecting Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The rules will become effective March 24, 2014. The new rules require businesses with at least 50 employees and $50,000 or more in federal contracts to have a staff comprised of at least 7% disabled workers. This action has been controversial because many disabled people do not self-identify as disabled on job applications for fear they would not be considered. The Americans with Disability Act allows disabled individuals to keep their disability confidential. A requirement for contractors to hire more disabled people is also an incentive for disabled people to reveal their status.
July 22, 2014- The Workforce Innovation And Opportunity Act (WIOA) is signed into law.
This act is essentially a routine reorganization of government job training programs. However, the bill has a strong focus on helping the disabled as it requires states to have a plan “to address the vocational rehabilitation needs of individuals with disabilities”, specifically services for those disabled young adults graduating from high school.
December 10, 2015- Obama signs the The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
This law is a reaffirmation of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act- a key element of LBJ’s “War on Poverty”. It replaces the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act, and while the Obama administration has been careful to point out the differences, the two laws are largely similar in effect. Among other things, the new law defines an “alternate diploma” for students with disabilities and emphasizes a focus on reducing bullying and harassment.
April 12, 2016- Obama helps the disabled with student loan forgiveness.
There had been a student loan forgiveness program in place for individuals declared permanently disabled by Social Security since 2013. Unfortunately, the program was under-utilized. Beginning in April, the Department of Education actively sought out those who were eligible for relief and forgave their loans.
Barak Obama – good intentions and hard choices for the disabled.
Some of the things Obama has done which have been a benefit for the disabled. However, Obama has not done everything perfectly when it comes to his treatment of the disabled. He has sometimes said the wrong thing and portrayed disability negatively. He has also made a few campaign promises which he has been unable to keep.
On the less serious side of the scale, Obama faced backlash from the handicapped community after jokingly comparing his bowling ability to the Special Olympics in an interview with Jay Leno. Additionally, some have interpreted a 2008 Obama attack ad against McCain as a slight on McCain’s disabilities from his military service. The ad claims McCain cannot write an email. John McCain has severe injuries from his time as a prisoner of war and cannot lift his arms above his head. It’s easy to see how Obama’s ad could be interpreted as an attack on disabled veterans.
Failure to fund Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
During his campaign, Obama promised to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress promised to fund 40% of the program but has consistently failed to do so, generally providing only around 20% of the program. Despite Obama’s promise, none of his budget proposals would have funded IDEA at the promised level. IDEA gives Federal funds to school districts to help them absorb the costs of education students with special needs. Underfunding this program could lead to exacerbated developmental disabilities, which may cost the government more in the long run.
Community Choice Act
The premise of the Community Choice Act is similar to that of the Olmstead enforcements mentioned earlier. Disabled people should be able to live as part of their communities rather than isolated in care facilities. The Community Choice Act proposes that people in nursing homes should also be eligible to receive care in their private residences. In 2007, Senator Obama strongly supported the bill. However, he compromised on this issue while pushing the Affordable Care Act forward. He cut all mention of the act from his website. When ADAPT, a disability advocacy group, protested his lack of support, many disabled protestors were arrested.
As is often the case in politics, hard decisions needed to be made and issues that were once at the forefront of the campaign became compromised in the face of adversity.
Obama did much to help enforce laws and implement policies that were already in place for the disabled. Executive Order 13548 (requiring the government to hire the disabled) and the Olmstead enforcements build on Clinton’s legacy. George W. Bush passed the New Freedom Initiative which helped make Federal government information more accessible to the disabled and funded technological advances to help those with disabilities. Bush also set precedents in the area of education with the No Child Left Behind act. Obama’s Olmstead actions follow the same principles established by Bush’s “Money Follows the Person” grant program. Change in government and law moves slowly. New ideas are difficult to pass through congress if they are not at least somewhat based on established precedent.
The left and right sides of the political aisle both see the importance of helping the disabled.
Job programs, education, health care, or simply increased assistance all can help improve quality of life for American’s most vulnerable citizens. However, regardless of any new initiatives, the government’s largest program to aid the disabled is Social Security.
Unfortunately, about a quarter of people will become disabled during their working years. If an injury or illness is preventing you from working, you may be eligible to collect disability benefits. If you are thinking of filing for social security or long term disability we can help. If you have filed for benefits and been denied disability we can assist in your appeal. Don’t give up. Contact the experienced long term disability attorneys at Bemis, Roach and Reed today for a free consultation. Call 512-454-4000 and get help NOW.
Author: Attorney Lonnie Roach has been practicing law for over 29 years. He is Superlawyers rated by Thomson Reuters and is Top AV Preeminent® and Client Champion rated by Martindale Hubbell. Through his extensive litigation Mr. Roach obtained board certifications from the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Lonnie is admitted to practice in the United States District Court – all Texas Districts and the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. Highly experienced in Long Term Disability denials and appeals governed by the “ERISA” Mr. Roach is a member of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, Austin Bar Association, and is a past the director of the Capital Area Trial Lawyers Association (Director 1999-2005) Mr. Roach and all the members of Bemis, Roach & Reed have been active participants in the Travis County Lawyer referral service.
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