Editor's Note: As the primary season begins, we bring you this exclusive interview with Jennifer Laslzo Mizrahi, President of RespectAbilityUSA, an important organization working on disability rights. Jennifer is on the campaign trail advocating for people with disabilities and answered our questions via email.
NN: Can you describe RespectAbilityUSA's mission in terms of inclusion in the Jewish community and why following the presidential race is connected to your mission?
JLM: Our work is all about improving the lives of people with disabilities. There is a big role for Jewish institutions in that work, and we are deeply committed to Jewish inclusion. But ultimately the disability agenda is a civil rights agenda and an anti-poverty agenda. And it’s far bigger than just the Jewish community. And the only way to move those agendas is to ensure that it is on the “to do list” of the next president of the United States. We want our issues to be center stage in the first 100 days of the next president's first term, and beyond.
President Obama has done a lot of good things for people with disabilities. But sadly, we are not even close to the top of his agenda. Nor were we for President George W. Bush. Indeed, in the first seven years that President Obama has been in office, he has rarely even uttered the word “disability.”
What isn’t in campaign promises and isn’t in the State of the Union generally doesn’t get done. Fully 1 in 5 Americans has a disability, but we haven’t really even been in the State of the Union.
Only 2 percent of America is Jewish, but as we are very active in politics there has been a permanent Jewish Liaison at the White House throughout this administration. Indeed, there was one in President George W. Bush’s Administration as well. However, even though there are at least eight times more people with disabilities in America than there are Jews, the White House only got a full-time permanent disability liaison (as opposed to someone on detail temporarily) fairly recently.
While there are a lot of Jews who work in leadership positions at the White House, how many people with disabilities can you name in the White House senior staff or in the cabinet? Other than Maria Town, the new and terrific disability liaison, can you name any?
Good news is that the White House is now looking to hire someone to work on accommodations for people with disabilities on their team. That’s terrific — but it’s also happening when there is less than a year left on President Obama’s watch. I want our community to be a top priority from day one of the next president’s term in office.
NN: You recently released a presidential scorecard and Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders emerge as leaders in disability policy. Were you surprised with the scorecards?
JLM: Each of them did a fantastic job in laying out many of the issues. They have very different approaches. Not surprisingly, former Gov. Jeb Bush looks more at partnering with state and local government along with the private and nonprofit sector to create opportunities. Sen. Bernie Sanders looks more at expanding the social safety net. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks more at early interventions, education and a pathway to employment and independence. Their plans very much reflect who they are as people, and their philosophies of governing. I highly recommend that all the readers actually read the full scorecards of each of these candidates.
Our scorecard is actually much harder for candidates to complete than those of many other groups. That’s because we ask for an actual plan on a number of issues, as opposed to just simple yes/no question. Most groups have a scorecard that simply asks if a candidate is for or against x/y/z legislation. Are they for or against a particular gun/abortion/environmental bill, for example. That is not what we are about. First, we don’t lobby. And second, the disability community is still at the stage where we need to educate smart candidates about our issues so they can first think about solutions, and then bring together different stakeholders to come up with better ideas and implementations of solutions.
Sadly, today our government is spending a fortune on programs for people with disabilities that are failing. In too many cases, American taxpayers are funding putting people in big institutions and in sheltered workshops, despite the fact that community living and competitive integrated employment is better and less expensive. We are using prisons as a substitute for a successful mental health system. People with disabilities are being discouraged from getting jobs because of a failed system of entitlements that punishes people who want to work.
Progress will take getting different government agencies to break out of their silos and play nicely together in the sandbox. They will need to innovate and take risks. Those are not things that government is very good at. So our scorecard required candidates and their teams to take a lot of time to think about big challenges and how they might address them. The silver bullet isn’t one magic bill them to pass. It’s to start a national conversation that starts with the fact that people with disabilities are deserve to have the same rights and opportunities to succeed as anyone else.
The thoughtfulness that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush are putting into these issues is very significant. Still, they have more to learn, and there are more questions others can ask. But many of the candidates have not yet really engaged with the process at all. We are still waiting to get candidate questionnaires back, for example, from Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasisch and Donald Trump. This is very, very important to achieve.
Bottom line, only one of the candidates running will be the next president of the United States. But even those who lose will still play very important roles in America. Some will continue to serve as governors or senators. Others may be Fox News commentators and authors who contribute to the national conversation on our issues. We want them all to care about our issues and to be educated about them.
NN: How does national policy on disability relate to what is happening on a state level?
JLM: Fully 70 percent of adults with disabilities aren’t working, despite the fact that studies show that most want to work. This is a national disgrace. It hurts employers who are missing out on great talent, taxpayers who are paying for a broken system, and people with disabilities who want to work.
Approximately 1 in 2 American adults with disabilities live in poverty, based on market income (Total income before tax minus income from government sources) while nearly 1 in 3 live in poverty based on disposable income (i.e. when counting income cash benefits like SSDI and SSI).
There is a new law, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). It was completely bipartisan and signed into law by President Obama. It has the potential to be fantastic. But where the rubber meets the road is at the state level. Governors and workforce boards and agencies get to create their own state plans for investing the $17 billion a year that follows WIOA. If they use the same failed practices of the past, no progress will be made. Jewish vocational programs, anti-poverty programs and social justice programs need to pay big attention to WIOA.
Right now every state is going through a process where they legally have to post a copy of their draft WIOA plan on the internet. By law they must invite and accept comments from the public. We have already read the plans for 12 of the states and submitted comments for each of them. Fully 38 more to go. All of these plans are an improvement from what they were doing before. But none of them yet is at a level that it will achieve the hopes and dreams of the new law. Anyone reading this who wants to check in on what is going on in their state and how they can make a difference should email me at Jenniferm@RespectAbiltyUSA.org.
NN: Disability issues got attention on the political front when Donald Trump made fun of a New York Times Reporter's disability. Why aren't these issues in more of the conversations — in the debates and beyond?
JLM: When we as a community do more to show up at campaign forums and ask questions, the candidates and reporters will be there for us. But we have to do our part. So far I see far too few people with disabilities at campaign events. While our group is not partisan and will not endorse candidates, I hope that others in our community will get behind the candidates who really care and will do good things if elected.
Part of the process is getting the candidates to make their events and materials fully accessible. Until recently this was not on campaign “to do lists." Nor were captions on videos, ASL at events and more. We are working to change all that. Candidates are much better at that. We are covering the candidates very closely and I invite your readers to see our coverage at www.TheRespectAbilityReport.com.