Monday, October 31, 2011

Changing the Paradigm

On October 28, 2011, the World Institute on Disability officially kicked-off its Center for Economic Growth (CEG). Andy Imparato, Senior Counsel and Disability Policy Director for the U.S. Senate HELP Committee, started by describing Senator Harkin's challenge to employ 6 million people with disabilities by 2015. My opening remarks were then presented.

Changing The Paradigm
Center for Economic Growth - Opening Remarks

Thank you for being here. We have very high expectations for this Summit. We believe that now is the time to change the paradigm of how we think about economic growth for people with disabilities. As entitlements continue to be questioned and their funding becomes more tenuous, we must embrace the belief and create the reality that people with disabilities are equal members in our society and full economic partners. We must change our mindset from providing disability benefits and safety-nets to delivering what it takes to enable people to successfully fulfill their role in the economic growth of themselves, their family and their extended community. Financial success for people with disabilities should be defined exactly the same way it is for everyone. Financial success is taking full advantage of opportunities one can find or create that uses one's abilities to be as productive as one can be and as prosperous as one wants to be. WID believes the return on investment of this paradigm shift is both significant and measurable.

We are going to begin the summit by reviewing recommendations made by The World Institute on Disability, Mathematica Policy Research and the National Council On Independent Living. Like all recommendations, these were made using certain mindsets. These mindsets include notions such as a safety net is needed for people with disabilities. Another paradigm is that employers should and will hire people with disabilities if they are equally as qualified as their peers. A third paradigm is that people with disabilities need rehabilitation to learn how to perform existing jobs. What if we change these paradigms? What if disability benefits were seen as equalization benefits – a way of leveling the field and removing the cost of disability as a barrier? What if, instead of safety nets, we provide civil service opportunities and expect people with disabilities to earn their way, just like everyone else? What if rehabilitation was seen as a way of discovering how people with disabilities can be productive and prepared for tomorrow’s jobs, challenges and opportunities?

The Disability Movement has historically been about changing paradigms. Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, the predominant paradigm regarding disability was that people with disabilities had to ‘adjust to their environment.’ Our goal was to look and sound and act as ‘normal’ as possible. It wasn’t until the paradigm changed and we realized that ‘society should be accessible to all people’ that true progress began to occur. Surprisingly, the predominant paradigm in regards to the employment of people with disabilities has not changed. We still hear ‘hire people with disabilities,’ and ‘people with disabilities can work.’ In this global economy, when employers know they can hire very qualified and experienced people anywhere in the world, expecting them to hire people with disabilities will only get harder. As a retired senior vice president of Wells Fargo Bank, hearing that ‘people with disabilities can work,’ is demeaning and patronizing. I submit to you that the crux of the problem behind the employment of people with disabilities lies in these antiquated constructs. I offer to you that the paradigm for the 21st century should be that everyone must be productive. Now is the time to raise expectations, to determine how we will be productive, and discover how we will create our own prosperity.
As you listen to the recommendations Bryon and David are going to review with you, please think about the underlying paradigms. The Center for Economic Growth wants to hear your opinion as to which 2 or 3 of these recommendations should we actively pursue? If the paradigms were different, would your advice to the CEG change? Might the proposals themselves change? Are the paradigms we have today OK? Are the ones we just suggested any better? Are there others? What data and research do we need to decide? We have purposely not developed details for our proposed new paradigms because we wanted to hear from you which way you think we should be headed. One thing we do know for sure is that to meet Senator Harkin’s challenge and to significantly improve the economic prosperity for people with disabilities, something bold and different is needed.

The Center for Economic Growth looks forward to your input both today and in the months ahead.