This post was co-written by UCP Programs and Development Interns James O’Connor and Rebecca Zewdie
During our time interning for UCP’s National office, we have had the opportunity to learn about a range of policies that affect the lives of people with disabilities everyday. On June 22nd, we were given the chance to attend our first policy briefings on Capitol Hill. It was really interesting to get a taste of how the issues we have been learning about get discussed by advocates and other stakeholders here in DC. The briefings we were able to attend focused on issues surrounding employment for individuals with disabilities and Assistive Technology (AT).
Employment (Rebecca’s perspective)
The first session of the day was a policy briefing that happened to be focused on the elimination of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Hosted by Representative Gregg Harper (R-MS) in a small room in the Longworth House Office Building, I was shocked to see attendees of the event standing in the hallway because the room was so packed. That was my first glimpse at how important discussion of this particular issue is to many people with disabilities, their families, and advocates.
Some of the speakers on the panel included those personally affected by Section 14(c), a longtime member of several Congressional committees, and a man who advocated to phase out 14(c) in the State of Maryland. It was an incredible experience to see what goes on behind the scenes of bills and how people work together to advocate for policies they believe in. It was also important for me to see the significance of health care policy, and the ramifications it could potentially have on individuals.
Among the speakers at the briefing, there was one man who helped change this law in his home state. Ken Capone, a resident of Maryland, helped pass the Ken Capone Equal Employment Act (EEA). The EEA mandates that the State of Maryland must phase-out the payment of sub-minimum wage to those with disabilities by the year 2020. His ability to advocate for, and eventually to make, a critical change at the state level was inspiring. His contribution in Maryland will now prevent any individual with a disability from receiving a wage that is below the State’s standard for people without disabilities.
His in-depth analysis further solidified my drive to advocate for causes that are important to me. As I aspire to be involved in the health field one day, the briefing further affirmed my chosen career path. Attending this briefing also made me see the need for more conversations surrounding employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Assistive Technology (James’s Experience on Capitol Hill)
For people with and without disabilities, technology is a part of everyday life. As I’ve seen from day one of my internship here at UCP, Assistive Technology (AT) is an integral part of the lives of many individuals with disabilities. I have witnessed first-hand how important AT is to someone like my supervisor, Karin. AT — such as her speech recognition software– plays an important, daily role in enabling her to do her job. Because of the work I have done researching and advocating for technology-related legislation, it was exciting to learn that Karin and I would both be attending a technology-focused luncheon hosted by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD).
The luncheon featured panelists speaking about AT and how it has helped them or their family members manage medication, go on vacation, exercise, access the web, communicate, and much more. I was particularly compelled by Jason Owen, who was in a car crash in 1990 that left him unable to communicate. With the help of AT, he has become an author, a motivational speaker, a self-help coach, and a mentor to people around the country. Listening to Jason, I realized that AT is not only a tool for survival; it can enable people to really excel.
After the panel, there was an assistive technology exposition with booths showcasing technology ranging from adapted Google Glasses to remote presence technology. I have seen how important something as simple as a motorized headrest can be, but to see some of the incredibly advanced technology available was breathtaking. Every technology at the expo was designed to make communication, travel, exercise, or work possible and practical for anyone and everyone.
As I learned more about AT, I came to realize that much of the technology I was admiring was funded by Medicaid for many of its users. I was disheartened to learn that the Senate’s healthcare bill could leave this technology out of reach for many of the Americans that need it. This fact, as well as everything I saw and learned at the luncheon, emphasized for me how important it is that I be an advocate and ally to those in the disability community through my work here at UCP.