The Cost of Exclusion

WilliamsBy Brad Williams
NYSILC Executive Director

June 14, 2011 (Updated February 7, 2013)

In July of 2010 Governor Paterson signed a series of bills into law to amend Article 15-A of the Executive Law which related to minority and women-owned business enterprise development and procurement. These new laws took effect in October of 2010 and were designed to increase opportunities for Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) in New York State to impact their ability to conduct business with State agencies in various aspects of their contracting. The rationale for the measure was based on a disparity study conducted in 2010 that found “statistical and anecdotal evidence” of significant racial and gender discrimination. The study was required based on amendments made to Article 15-A during the Pataki Administration. It was recommended that the State take “constitutionally compliant” action.

I am not aware of the progress of these new laws. I certainly hope that they end up having the desired impact. I am writing this opinion piece today to point out some of the law’s unintended consequences.

First some background. I am a person with a disability who in my work with the Independent Living network looks to address the significant and wide-ranging needs of people with disabilities. We are a significant minority, representing approximately 20% of the total population. Based on U.S. Census Bureau 2009 estimates, this would translate into 61.4 million Americans or 3.9 million New Yorkers. Why is it, then, are we constantly excluded from the table and often an afterthought? People with disabilities are all ages, races, cultures, and genders – can be on fixed incomes or wealthy, and are tax-paying citizens. As a group, we also experience one of the highest levels of unemployment in the country. For example, people with disabilities constitute 20.6% of the State’s population with national unemployment rate of 15.6% versus 8.9% for persons without a disability (March 2011). The situation is magnified when you consider that the percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force was only 21% versus 69.7% for persons without a disability (March 2011). NYSILC conducted a statewide needs assessment in 2012. Based on U.S. Census data, the employment rate of all New Yorkers with disabilities (ages 18-64) was 31.3%, compared to 72% for New Yorkers without a disability, creating a gap of 40.7%! In addition, the poverty rate of New Yorkers with disabilities in the same age group was 30.2% – about two and a half times higher than the poverty rate of New Yorkers without a disability (ages 18-64). If New Yorkers with a disability were a country, their rate would rank them 58th in the list of impovershed countires right behind Botswana! Given these facts, it is obvious that people with disabilities need employment opportunities too. Since some people with disabilities have to address access issues, they might pursue self-employment as an option, which provides more flexibility over work scheduling and promotes the use of technology and telecommuting. However, this would not exclude individuals from seeking inclusive employment in a more traditional and accessible work environment.

Second, our network is funded through the NYS Education Department. The SED commitment calls for 12% to be provided to minority-owned businesses and 8% of contracted services to be provided to women-owned businesses. What are the unintended consequences? Some newly issued RFPs that have the combined 20% MWBE requirement are getting no response. The RFP is seen as being too difficult to manage, especially those with limited funds. Was this really the intent of the legislation – to take 20% of small State contracts to the point of rendering them ineffective? Net effect – nobody wins. When the 20% combined requirement gets implemented in the next Statewide Plan for Independent Living (SPIL) cycle of RFPs, it will result in people with disabilities losing their jobs in order to provide business for certified MWBEs which may not even be conducive, consistent, or relevant to providing services to the target population. It will end up adding to the already high unemployment rate for people with disabilities. Since disability can impact anyone, and we are mandated to be peer driven and consumer-directed, we hire qualified individuals with disabilities. This includes qualified minorities and women with disabilities who could potential lose their job in the process. Can somebody please tell how any of this makes sense? Think this is just hypothetical? Since I have a contract, in preparation of the next cycle, one person with a disability has already lost their job due to a restructuring and a few of our consultants, some having disabilities, stand to lose our business.

Third, how were individuals with disabilities excluded from the MWBE opportunity? It is hard to say. I suppose the people involved in the process were just representing their primary interests. This includes the Governor at the time, David Paterson, who probably identified more as a person of color than as a person with a disability. He knew the value of the legislation, but like many…oops…just forgot about those disabled people. Here’s my solution, the afterthought that we often have to deal with. Amend Article 15-A to expand the definition of “minority” to include a new section 8 (e) for businesses run by “people with disabilities” consistent with the definition in Human Rights Law Article 15, Section 292 (21). This is at least a proactive response to rectify a contractual situation that while it is assisting some groups, has excluded a rather large minority group that is struggling with “mind-bending” statistics and realities that government just doesn’t seem too motivated to do something about.

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The Middle Ages

Williams
By Brad Williams
Executive Director
NYSILC
           After numerous requests, I finally relented and joined the ranks as a card-carrying AARP member. As I begin to learn what special privileges this membership affords me, including all the perplexities awaiting me on the verge of being a decade or so away from retirement (hey…I already get the senior citizen discount at Dunkin’ Donuts by virtue of my graying hair), I was reminded of the importance of taking some time to discuss issues with specific groups, like young adults with disabilities.
            Seriously, it has been a very long time since I was a young adult. It seems almost a lifetime ago. However, I can remember myself struggling with career choices and the onset of a disability…pre-ADA and the existence of the Center for Independent Living (CIL) network. I recalled these thoughts while attending the Youth Power Annual Leaders Dinner in Albany. This event was part of their statewide conference. I was greeted at the door of the hotel and escorted to the elevator.  Then I was introduced to several young adult advocates and led to the specific table in the conference room that they had selected for me. A group of six young adult advocates from across the state eventually joined me for dinner. I was impressed by the way they introduced themselves and shared background information. Soon they allowed me to do the same and more; I was encouraged to expand the discussion when necessary (taking a break for appetizers) until we were set up for the main course.
            Even then, dinner would wait. I was their captive audience. They had me sufficiently engaged and it was now time to get down to the “meatier” issues. With the exception of one person at the table, employment was a real problem. I certainly had been aware of the lack of career opportunities and knew it was not easy for college graduates to obtain employment in their field. By relating their own experiences, they made me appreciate just how difficult the situation is for young adults with disabilities. This included a less than positive experience by one individual at his local Labor Department which lasted a total of 15 minutes. Despite being connected to the Navigator program, he ended up without any tangible employment opportunities and was never assisted with resume preparation.   Our talk then shifted to something that several of them had experienced problems with – Disability Services Offices connected with colleges. One actually had a very positive experience. He was one year away from graduation and credited his success with the attitude of the people working in the office. A second person had an acceptable experience. The other individuals shared their stories of how these offices had basically let them down and not accommodated their needs. They explained that these colleges (all community colleges) seemed to have difficulty understanding how to accommodate students with cognitive or learning disabilities.  Without the proper supports in place, they dropped out.
            I was stunned.  I had a cognitive disability as a college student, and by good fortunate received the additional support I needed because of a professor who cared. Dinner was an afterthought. We got up and went through the buffet line, and finished our conversation at the table. I heard them loud and clear. It would be a matter of what could be or should be done about these issues.
            Unfortunately, I had to leave in order to commute home. I thanked the group for their time and feedback on the issues. As I made my way to the elevator, a person stopped me. He was sitting at the table next to us and had overheard some of our talk. This young man had a similar experience at his community college. He had requested a testing accommodation that college staff agreed to, but never put into place. Consequently, his grades had suffered and he was now on academic probation. I sat down and discussed the matter with him. At this point, he really needed third party intervention. I pulled out my business card and wrote down the name and number of the director of advocacy services for his local center.
            What a disturbing trend! Just how pervasive is this problem? Is it isolated to the community colleges? What makes the difference between colleges that provide quality support services to students with disabilities and ones the drop the ball? Someone had to have more information on this topic. Did certain programs need to learn from best practices? Was there a need for legislation to rectify the situation, or did these individuals need to become plaintiffs? I left with far too many questions and very few answers.
            I know the next forum that I should attend…something on aging. I better get up to speed on the various issues crucial to senior citizens! It’s really not that far away. I will probably be one of those pesky seniors with a walker that has a horn on the side (beep, beep). And I thought that I was going to be able to retire in the next decade? The battle over the protection of our rights, our services, our voice…and maybe even our existence…is perpetual and crosses generations.