Amid the anticipated rhetoric about issues like immigration and abortion, President Trump briefly turned his attention during his State of the Union address to an unexpected topic: the employment prospects for Americans with disabilities. He announced that “unemployment for Americans with disabilities has … reached an all-time low.”
While the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has indeed reached a record low at 9 percent, that statistic does not capture the full picture. It counts only people actively seeking work. The Great Recession led a considerable number of disabled people to give up on doing so, a fact reflected in the proportion of disabled people above the age of 16 who have jobs: At 18.7 percent, that figure has still not recovered to its pre-recession levels. (It hit 21 percent in September 2008.)
That’s not a quibble: It shows people with disabilities suffered a blow during the economic crisis, from which they have not recovered. More importantly, Barack Obama’s administration had far more robust policy measures for promoting the employment of disabled people. Not only aren’t Trump’s political appointees building on those successes: They are working to sabotage them.
On July 26, 2010, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Obama signed an executive order dramatically increasing affirmative action for people with disabilities seeking to enter the federal workforce. The order made it easier for managers to hire qualified workers with disabilities through a special hiring process — one that bypassed the usual, highly bureaucratic process of hiring a career federal employee. Obama also promised that the federal government would hire 100,000 workers with disabilities over the subsequent five years.
I was a member of the National Council on Disability at the time, and I and other disability policy appointees met with the president before the signing ceremony and watched as he put his signature on the commitment. We were excited, but wary about whether the president would achieve the goal. Other administrations had made big promises on disability employment before — and failed to deliver. (The Clinton administration had also set the goal of hiring 100,000 people with disabilities over five years, in 2000, but the goal was abandoned, during the George W. Bush years.) But indeed, by the end of the Obama administration, the federal government had hired 109,575 career employees with disabilities, a remarkable achievement that helped bring the employment of people with disabilities to its highest rate in 35 years.
Just as importantly, Obama issued crucial regulations incentivizing federal contractors to hire workers with disabilities. Those rules set a goal that 7 percent of workers employed by contractors should be people with disabilities (adding that contractors’ hiring practices would be scrutinized if the goal wasn’t met). Thanks to Obama appointees such as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Perez, the Americans With Disabilities Act received a level of enforcement never seen before. And the Education Department, which oversees state vocational rehabilitation programs designed to help job-seekers with disabilities, issued new rules designed to help people with disabilities find the same kind of job opportunities as non-disabled workers, and the same pay levels — instead of getting them jobs in segregated enclaves.
The Affordable Care Act also created new opportunities for people with disabilities to enter the workforce, since many people with disabilities go on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to get access to public health insurance. To keep their eligibility for those programs, and insurance, such individuals must limit their income — meaning they turn down job opportunities). Because the ACA prohibited preexisting condition discrimination and expanded Medicaid, many people with disabilities were freed to enter the workforce without fear of insurance loss. Research has shown that states that expanded Medicaid on balance saw improvements in employment outcomes for people with disabilities not present among those states that failed to do so.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has worked to reverse many of these measures, making the president’s attempt to lay claim to his predecessor’s successes especially galling. In December 2017, the Justice Department indicated it would no longer stand behind important guidance issued during the Obama administration that required states to give people with disabilities services to help them access integrated workplaces.
Since then, the Trump administration has signaled that it plans to weaken the Education Department’s rules encouraging state vocational rehabilitation programs to prioritize integrated workplaces over segregated job sites in helping people with disabilities find jobs. This is part of a broader shift away from Obama-era policies designed to maximize the integration of people with disabilities. Such integration — in living spaces, schools and workplaces — is a long-standing goal of disability rights activists.
Had congressional Republicans succeeded in passing their hundreds of billions of proposed cuts to federal Medicaid funding, all of which were ardently supported by the Trump administration, countless more people with disabilities would be forced to choose between losing their health insurance or staying out of the workforce, to keep their income low enough to qualify for SSI and SSDI. And as the Trump administration approves state requests to impose work requirements on state Medicaid programs, people with disabilities will be some of the hardest hit.
While Trump continues to benefit from the momentum the Obama administration had established on disability (and the economy in general), his administration’s continued attempts at sabotaging the Obama disability policy legacy threaten to make things worse, not better.
People with disabilities, a community representing one in five Americans, deserve better than lies and self-serving applause lines. We want good jobs, which can come about only through enforcement of existing laws and the continuation, or expansion, of innovative policies. Trump is claiming credit for progress he had no part of — and, indeed, is reversing.