RSA Commissioner, Dr. Fredric Schroeder, addresses the 2000 convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.
RSA Commisioner , Dr. Frederick Schroeder,
addresses the 2000 convention of the
National Federation of the Blind
From the Editor: Friday, July 7, was the day that Dr. Fred Schroeder, for many years a leader in the National Federation of the Blind and now the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Education, addressed the sixtieth convention of the National Federation of the Blind. This is what he said:
As all of you know, there will be an election this fall, and we will have a new President and a new Administration. So I thought that it might be good to take a few minutes to review with you the major accomplishments of the past eight years. Under the Clinton Administration the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Program has assisted 1,676,900 people with disabilities to go to work, and there continues to be a steady increase in the number of people who go to work each year. In 1992, 191,890 people were assisted in finding work. Last year 229,829 people found jobs with the help of state rehabilitation agencies. This means that last year 37,939 more people went to work than in 1992, at the beginning of the Clinton Administration, an increase of 20 percent over eight years.
But of course the number of people going to work does not speak to the quality of that work. As you know, we have emphasized quality and in particular wages, benefits, and upward mobility potential. So what about wages? As you may be aware, the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) has completed a longitudinal study of the VR services program. We found that people placed in competitive, integrated employment make rapid gains in earnings and in access to health insurance over time. During the period of the study people placed in competitive employment averaged $7.56 per hour at closure, hardly a princely sum, but watch what happens over time. One year later the average hourly wage rose to $8.23. Two years later those people placed in competitive employment earned $10.25 per hour, and three years later they earned on average $13.48 per hour. This represents an increase of just over 78 percent in earnings in three years from $7.56 per hour to $13.48 per hour for those people placed in integrated, competitive work.
During this same period access to health insurance rose. According to the longitudinal study at closure only 38.2 percent of competitively employed people had access to health insurance. However, one year later 49.2 percent had access to health insurance. Two years later that number had risen to 55.3 percent, and three years later 58.8 percent of people competitively employed had access to health insurance--58.8 percent, a number nearly approximating the access to health insurance among the general population (estimated at 64.5 percent). In short, the longitudinal study shows rehabilitation services resulting in a steady increase in earnings and a steady increase in access to health insurance--good wages and good benefits, careers, not simply jobs. But, if our expectation is high-quality employment, careers not simply jobs, then each individual must have the opportunity to pursue a challenging career goal.
As you are aware, the employment goal for each person is determined individually, and the services provided by the rehabilitation agency are designed to help the individual obtain his or her employment goal. But what does the rehabilitation system use as a standard for establishing an employment goal for an individual? In the past federal policy defined an employment goal as nothing more challenging than "suitable employment." "Suitable employment" was defined as "reasonably good entry-level work an individual can satisfactorily perform." Or in other words, low-skilled, low-wage jobs.
In line with our commitment to high-quality employment, in August of 1997 we issued a policy directive (PD 97-04) rescinding the old standard of "suitable employment" and replacing it with a new standard that embodies the concepts of maximization, career advancement, and above all informed choice. To support further our emphasis on high-quality employment, RSA has developed performance standards and evaluation indicators to measure objectively the quality of the work of state rehabilitation agencies. The standards and indicators emphasize wages and integration as measures of high-quality employment.
In policy development, in monitoring, and in technical assistance we, the Administration, continue to emphasize the fundamental tenets of good rehabilitation practice--an individualized program rooted in informed choice leading to challenging, high-quality employment. This theme is reflected in changes we proposed to the Rehabilitation Act during its most recent reauthorization. The Act now contains strengthened provisions concerning informed choice. The role of the Rehabilitation Council has been broadened, and the Council's authority has been strengthened and is no longer simply advisory.
Recipients of Social Security Supplemental Income and beneficiaries of Social Security Disability Insurance are now presumed eligible for rehabilitation services. The right of an individual to seek assistance outside of the rehabilitation agency in developing his or her employment plan is now reflected in statute. An individual may now write his or her own plan or may seek assistance from anyone he or she chooses, or he or she may seek assistance from a rehabilitation counselor in the customary fashion. These are changes that support access to needed services, support the dignity of the individual and the individual's right to make informed choices, and support and strengthen the principle of high-quality employment--careers, not simply jobs.
As you know, the prime barriers to employment facing blind people are public attitudes and misconceptions about blindness. Barriers arising out of myth and ignorance have taken many forms. Yet the most common is exclusion based on expressed concerns about safety. In the past university programs did not accept blind people to train to work as Orientation and Mobility instructors. Fortunately, the situation today is much improved. In 1992 language was added to the Rehabilitation Act requiring certification of rehabilitation personnel. Given the historic exclusion of blind people from university training programs, we were not prepared to let certification requirements unfairly discriminate against blind people in the field of Orientation and Mobility.
Accordingly, as we developed implementing regulations, we explicitly exempted blind people wishing to teach Orientation and Mobility from certification requirements when working for state rehabilitation agencies, and we intend to reaffirm that exemption in the next set of regulations. But barring discrimination is only half the battle. It is not enough simply to prohibit the exclusion of blind people from the Orientation and Mobility profession. We believed and continue to believe that blind people should be encouraged to bring their perspectives and experiences to the teaching of cane travel. For this reason we funded the first university training program in Orientation and Mobility based on a teaching methodology that works equally well for blind and sighted instructors and which provides superior results for blind cane travel students.
Turning to another matter, as you know, I serve as a member of the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled (the Committee). The Committee administers the Javits-Wagner O'Day (JWOD) Act, which directs federal contracts to non-profit agencies that employ people with disabilities. For many years RSA and the Committee have disagreed on the applicability of the Randolph-Sheppard Act to military troop dining facilities. It is our contention and the opinion of the Department of Defense General Counsel that the Randolph-Sheppard Act applies to military troop dining. As Dr. Maurer discussed with you earlier this week, last year NISH (formerly known as the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped) filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court challenging the priority afforded to blind vendors under the Randolph-Sheppard Act in military troop dining facilities. On April 25, 2000, the Court found in favor of the Department of Defense and agreed that the military troop dining facility at Ft. Lee, Virginia was indeed subject to the Randolph-Sheppard Act. In its suit NISH sought to draw a distinction between appropriated funded activities and concession activities. In other words, NISH asserted that, if a vendor is paid with a government check, then the cafeteria is not a Randolph-Sheppard operation, but if a vendor is paid directly by soldiers who pull dollar bills out of their pockets, then it is a Randolph-Sheppard cafeteria. We, of course, believe the Act makes no such distinction. The Court agreed, and in fact in reaching its decision the Court referenced an August 14, 1997, memorandum from me to the Committee for Purchase in which I stated, "[a]ny attempt to draw a distinction between appropriated-funded cafeterias and concession cafeterias is merely a fiction to justify placing full food-service activities on the [JWOD Act] Committee's procurement list. There is no basis either in the Act or in the legislative history for [such a] position."
These are some of the accomplishments of the past eight years, but where do we go from here? One issue of great concern is the placement of blind people and others in sheltered workshops. We believe that any person who gets up and goes to work each day deserves our respect and the respect of society generally. However, in recent years amendments to the Rehabilitation Act have given increasing emphasis to integrated employment. Accordingly, over the past two decades placement in sheltered workshops has decreased by about 50 percent both in real numbers and as a percentage of all placements.
In addition to integration we are concerned about whether sheltered work genuinely gives blind people and others the opportunity for economic self-sufficiency. That is, do people placed in sheltered work make enough money to live on? Of the 7,765 people placed in sheltered work by VR agencies in 1998, 6,934 (or 89.3 percent) earned less than the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. In fact, the average hourly rate for those placed in sheltered work was $2.53. This is in sharp contrast to the average hourly rate of $8.65 for those placed in competitive employment the same year.
Our longitudinal study confirms the fact that people placed in sheltered work earn far below the minimum wage and fail to make gains in earnings overtime. According to our longitudinal study the average hourly earnings for people placed in sheltered work was $3.03. One year later average hourly wages dropped to $2.64 an hour. Two years later average hourly wages rose slightly to $2.84 but were still less than these same people earned when they began working two years earlier.
The problem of low wages is compounded by limited work hours and limited access to health insurance. According to the longitudinal study people placed in sheltered work worked an average of 27.6 hours per week. One year later the average work week was 28.1 hours, and the following year 29.1 hours per week. For people placed in sheltered work, only 16 percent had health insurance at time of closure. One year later the number dropped to 12 percent, and two years later the percent of people in sheltered work who had access to health insurance dropped again to 11.7 percent.
But how do blind people fare in sheltered work? A total of 434 blind and visually impaired people were placed in sheltered work in 1998. Of these, 297 people (or 68 percent) made less than the minimum wage. For the 137 blind people making minimum wage or above, how much above minimum wage did they make? Eighty percent or 109 made between $5.15 and $6.00 per hour; 13 made between $6.01 and $7.00 per hour; five made between $7.01 and $8.00; two made between $8.01 and $9.00; two more made between $9.01 and $10.00; and six, not six percent, but six people made $10.01 and above. In addition to concerns about integration, this raises concerns about the quality of sheltered employment generally.
These findings are in dramatic contrast to wages and access to health insurance for people placed in integrated work. Let me reiterate that we do not devalue the dignity or the worth of any person working in a sheltered facility. We do not consider people who are employed in sheltered workshops to be failures. Instead we believe that all people must have the opportunity to prepare for and pursue the best possible employment.
With the Rehabilitation Act setting forth a clear policy in support of integration, coupled with a disturbing picture of segregated work characterized by low wages, limited work hours, and minimal benefits, on June 26, 2000, the Rehabilitation Services Administration published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which would amend its definition of an allowable employment outcome to exclude sheltered work. This change would require state rehabilitation agencies to establish a goal of competitive, integrated employment for all people entering the program. We believe this is the right policy, a policy that recognizes that blind people and others are capable of working productively and competitively, a policy predicated on the belief that blind people and others can no longer be marginalized and relegated to isolation and poverty.
But what if an individual genuinely wants employment in a sheltered workshop? This policy change would not close sheltered workshops. No person currently employed in sheltered work would lose his or her job. No one would be forced against his or her will to leave the sheltered workshop. Instead this requirement would press state rehabilitation agencies to seek integrated employment opportunities for all people served by the program.
We believe this change supports the emphasis we have placed on high-quality employment opportunities. We believe it is consistent with the efforts we have undertaken over the past eight years, efforts that have resulted in a steady increase in the number of people who find employment each year, efforts that have emphasized wages and upward mobility, efforts that have reinforced the right of each individual to receive services that will enable the individual to pursue a lifetime of employment--careers, not simply jobs, efforts that have expanded access to the system for Social Security recipients, efforts that have resulted in a recognition that not all people need or want the same level of assistance in planning for their lives, in short, efforts that support the dignity of each person and recognize the right of all people to pursue challenging, rewarding employment and to assume their rightful place as productive members of society.
The accomplishments of the past eight years can be catalogued in many ways--by the number of people who went to work, by hourly wages and fringe benefits--but the true measure of success is the degree to which our efforts have moved us closer to the day when all Americans, blind and sighted alike, will be able to live and work according to their own talents and determination, in short, the day when blind people will no longer suffer the denial of opportunity brought about by myth and tradition, the day when integration and self-sufficiency are no longer the goal but the ordinary experience.