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Some Law Makers Seek to Rewrite the Rehabilitation Act with Controversial New Bill

level accessThe Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are without question the two most critical pieces of legislation ever penned in support of the civil rights of people with disabilities.

But a controversial congressional bill floating around Capitol Hill seeks to modify the language of the Rehabilitation Act, which would have a significant impact on both laws. And some disability advocacy groups are voicing serious concerns over what those changes might mean.

H.R. 5658, titled “the Workplace Choice and Flexibility for Individuals with Disabilities Act,” would make a number of language changes to the Rehabilitation Act, effectively redefining the phrase “competitive integrated employment.” This change would impact language within the ADA as well.

The bill was penned by Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) and currently has 16 cosponsors, including 15 Republicans and one Democrat, Dwight E. Evans of Pennsylvania.

What Does “Competitive Integrated Employment” Mean?

If passed, H.R. 5658 would make a number of hefty edits to the Rehabilitation Act’s definition of the phrase “competitive integrated employment,” or “CIE.”

By its current definition, CIE ensures workers with disabilities have the right to work in the same physical locations as their fellow coworkers, and that they are compensated fairly for that work, guaranteeing that minimum wage standards must be upheld and that workers with disabilities are compensated on par with other staff.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014 enhances the CIE definition by helping individuals with disabilities find competitively-integrated jobs with employers offering tailored support to meet their workers’ specific, individual needs.

Specific Changes to the Rehabilitation Act

As it stands today, the CIE definition broadly states that employers are not allowed to segregate workers with disabilities from the rest of their staff, or prevent them from interacting with others who are not individuals with disabilities.

H.R. 5658 would change that broad statement of inclusion so that this element of the CIE definition specifically refers to “social and interpersonal interactions with colleagues, vendors, customers, superiors, or other such persons who the employee may come into contact with during the work day and across workplace settings.”

The new bill would also amend the Rehabilitation Act with a new clause that effectively changes the CIE definition to include non-competitive jobs, which some advocates point out are already available to workers with disabilities.

We’ve taken the liberty of laying out the changes to the Rehabilitation Act as proposed in H.R. 5658 in a separate article, so you can read the changes being made and decide for yourself if these are good or bad.

Some Favor the Bill, While Others Oppose It

The changes that H.R. 5658 would make to the Rehabilitation Act may seem vague and muddled to some. And the arguments for and against the bill don’t exactly help things along, either.

ACCSES, a group that represents over 1200 organizations and present themselves as advocates of people with disabilities, strongly favors H.R. 5658 and wants to see it passed.

“This bill stops the presumption in the definition of competitive integrated employment that is blocking many Vocational Rehabilitation offices from referring people with disabilities to good jobs under the AbilityOne and State Use programs,” ACCSES states on their website. “It also corrects the regulatory addition of evaluating whether a job complies at the work unit level and returns it to the definition intended by Congress.”

ACCSES continues, “This bill is one step toward our collective goal of increasing job opportunities and choices for people with disabilities.”

But many disability rights groups oppose the bill and are calling for it to be dropped. In an article published recently by Disability Rights Wisconsin, the advocacy group is critical of the bill, saying “People with disabilities face barriers and discrimination every day trying to obtain a competitive job. Changing the definition of competitive employment to include non-competitive jobs doesn’t make sense.”

“People with disabilities already can work in non-competitive settings,” they continue. “The purpose of the Rehabilitation Act is to eliminate barriers and discrimination against people with disabilities to gain competitive work. Changing this definition does not move Wisconsin forward.”

Advocacy group ADAPT released a series of strongly-worded dismissals of the bill, arguing via a recent press release that “The purpose of H.R. 5658 is to put money in the pockets of providers and businesses that profit off exploitation and segregation of the Disability Community. This bill resurrects walls of exclusion by segregating people with disabilities both socially and economically, allowing service providers to keep disabled people in workplaces that are isolated from the rest of society, and to pay those workers pennies on the dollar for the value of their work.”

ADAPT organizer Ami Weidler-Hyten, who serves as the Executive Director for Programs and Operations at the Topeka Independent Living Center, was adamant that H.R. 5658 is a bill that disability advocates should be wary of.

“Contrary to its name, this bill is neither about choice or flexibility for people with disabilities,” said Weidler-Hyten.  “The title is doublespeak intended to mislead the public and congress about a bill that will only limit the choices of disabled people and further our segregation.”

“It is dishonest to equate competitive, integrated, community employment with segregated, sub-minimum-wage work and it is a perversion to call the exploitation of disabled labor ‘Choice’”, said National Council on Independent Living Executive Director Kelly Buckland. “This naked money grab by service providers comes at the expense of disabled lives and liberty. In taking away our opportunities for competitive integrated community employment ACCSES is actively interfering with our ability to earn a living, support ourselves and live our lives.”

“Congress doesn’t need to hear from service providers who see our lives as nothing more than an opportunity for exploitation, bodies to profit from like the private prison and nursing home industries, said ADAPT Organizer and Not Dead Yet Director of Minority Outreach, Anita Cameron from Rochester, New York. “They need to hear from disabled people, they need to hear about the lives we want to live and the communities we want to build. 28 years after the signing of the ADA it is insulting that any organization would pretend to know our needs better than we do.”

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