The Evolution of Disability Rights Litigation (and some stories)
David Ferleger, Esq.
Employment for People with Disabilities
Employment for everyone is a matter of dignity and someone's feeling of some meaning and self worth. Virtually the first question we ask somebody after we know their name and how's the family, where are you from is what do you do? What work do you do? In olden days I'll call it, even in old England, and in the United States, the poor houses were people with mental health, intellectual disabilities, just people impoverished. People were held there when they couldn't work. The lack of employment for whatever reason was seen as well stigmatizing and deserving of virtually involuntary incarceration. So, one of the ways besides the benefit to the individual of employment.
One of the ways I think as a society we enhance the image and the treatment of people with disabilities is when we help provide the training and the opportunities for real employment, not segregated, and provided in ways that give people sort of good pay, respect and the ability to support themselves and their families.
Many years ago, decades now, Mark Gold showed that people with intellectual disabilities could put together a bicycle if you broke down the steps sort of one by one. The technology, the knowledge has been there for a long time. Earlier efforts, and a lot of them exist today, around employment of people with especially intellectual disabilities revolved around workshops, segregated low paying or almost no pay situations where people were not given anything respectful for them to work on.
Of course, before that, until the 1970s, institutions generally employed inmates or patients to do work without pay, no therapeutic value, to really support the institution. The farms were run by the patients. The maintenance work, the elevator operators were all people who worked as part of their alleged treatment.
So, in Pennsylvania, for example, when I filed a lawsuit to end what was called peonage, there were 6,000 patient workers in mental hospitals. The court ruled that there could be no labor of a patient unless it was voluntary, therapeutic and paid. Three requirements. The day that court order went into effect, the number of patients working went from 6,000 to 400. Because the state apparently, although it had defended the program as therapeutic, the state didn't want to pay or really justify the therapy.
So I'm glad to say that, as my colleagues who work in this field have sort of begun to recognize and develop that the segregation that used to be the case and often is still, the workshops, the segregated work groups, etc., that those are beginning to fade away and that folks in all areas of life with disabilities are beginning to get the opportunity to bring home that paycheck, to be respected and to do productive work in our society.
So, that change is incredibly important and there are glimmerings and some people are preparing litigation actually on this, glimmerings of a right to have the kind of vocational services that one needs in order to have not just the moral or therapeutic right to employment, but beginning to say that there is a legal right to that kind of employment. And, one of the theories or avenues here is that many state vocational services offices and departments do not provide much help to people with intellectual and some other disabilities. So the lack of support from vocational agencies itself might be a means to say we need to expand what's being offered to people.
You meet somebody in a restaurant or anywhere who's doing work, like we were talking about the photographs that Luther did. On the one hand you see somebody in a corner in an institution, dressed in awful clothes, no haircut or whatever, that same person, and you know as well as me, can be, that same person a year later can be working, serving the food at a restaurant. And the change in people is dramatic, in terms of the way they feel about themselves.