Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 30th Anniversary – a model of bipartisan smarts – and how New York can lead

By Maureen O’Brien | July 26, 2020

The Americans with Disabilities Act, introduced by Representative Tony Coelho (D) and signed by President George H.W. Bush (R) 30 years ago, stands as one of the great acts of bipartisan cooperation of the last half century.  The federal law enacted July 26, 1990, tore down what the President called “a shameful wall of exclusion” of people with disabilities.

Fifteen years earlier, New York was dismantling its own shameful symbol of disregard and disrespect for people with disabilities. In the aftermath of the Willowbrook scandal, Gov. Hugh Carey and the Legislature created the Preferred Source Program, which gives non-profits that support people with disabilities a chance to provide good and services to government agencies.

The goal was to create jobs and economic opportunities — and spur all the larger societal benefits – for people previously shut out of the labor force. My organization, New York State Industries for the Disabled (NYSID), was formed to facilitate getting the work to over 135 non-profits, like the Center for Disability Services in Albany or Jawonio in the Lower Hudson Valley.

I spent much of last week celebrating the synergies of the ADA and the Preferred Source Program at one of the great enterprises that grew out the latter, Spectrum Designs in Port Washington, Long island, where 80% of the workers are on the autism spectrum and all are paid a living wage.

We celebrated not with a party but by delivering on a large fulfillment project. It was remarkable – people with disabilities working side-by-side and supported by job coaches in a safe, clean, bustling environment full of camaraderie and common purpose, plus masks and hand sanitizer. See video here.

Like all the enterprises given life by the Preferred Source Program, Spectrum Designs has a social mission – to help individuals with autism lead full and productive lives, and provide high-quality and cost-effective goods and services to government and businesses. That is, doing good while doing well.

Spectrum’s leaders — co-founder/CEO Patrick Bardsley, COO Tim Howe and Chief of Staff Mackenzie Jameson – are dynamic, good-hearted and smart entrepreneurs. Bigger shops would love Spectrum’s client list, which includes Northwell Health, NYU Langone Medical Center, Uber, Google, St. John’s University Law School, ABC, JP Morgan Chase and the MTA’s Metro North Railroad.

Last year, Spectrum expanded with a second facility, an 8,000 square foot operation in Pleasantville, Westchester County, where its first project was 5,500 pieces for Metro North. By tripling its work force, Spectrum is doing its part to reduce New York State’s incredible pre-pandemic 67 percent unemployment rate for people with disabilities.

And in 2018, Spectrum Designs was featured in the Cannes-featured documentary This Business of Autism, about the economic and societal benefits of employing young adults with autism.

Overall, the Preferred Source Program works. A September 2019 study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government quantified our impact on New York State’s economy and communities. Rockefeller found NYSID:

  • Generated $368.9 million in economic output in New York State.
  • Employed 6,565 individuals with disabilities and an additional 806 full-time equivalent nondisabled workers.
  • Created the equivalent of an additional 919 full-time jobs through purchases made by member agencies, corporate partners and employees.
  • Contributed $8.8 million in federal and state tax revenue.
  • Reduced federal and state commitments to public assistance programs.
  • Kept government costs level when compared to private sector suppliers.

This is on a base of about $250 million in state and local government contracts, or about 1.3 percent of total state contract spending, according to Rockefeller. Again, NYSID doesn’t do the work itself; we work with government agencies to get the work to the local organizations.

The comprehensive value of this effort can’t be underestimated.

Rockefeller reported that people with disabilities face challenges in society and the workforce that leaves the population vulnerable to economic insecurity. In addition, New Yorkers with disabilities were 2.6 times more likely to live in poverty than residents with no disability, and 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes.

According to Rockefeller, while New York State was an early leader in the development of policies and programs to create employment opportunities for its disabled citizens through preferential procurement policies, a review of economic indicators shows that access to employment for disabled workers in New York State has been lagging other states.

New York State is among the bottom half of states when evaluating disabled poverty rates, employment rates, and earnings although it ranks in the top ten nationally for share of population disabled. New York State has lost ground in all of these areas over the past five years, Rockefeller said.

That said, we see enormous opportunity ahead, particularly as Governor Cuomo and his team, with the Legislature, plan for a robust recovery from the pandemic – a plan New Yorkers with disabilities should be part of.

The average wage growth for workers through the Preferred Source Program is nearly double the national average for the past five years, 22 percent vs. 12 percent. That’s great and we must keep it going.

We have plenty of capable, effective and cost-efficient enterprises across the Empire State that can help meet New York’s needs for mail fulfillment, janitorial and sanitizing, PPE and other items, partnering not only with government agencies but with our state’s incredible Minority-and-Women-Owned businesses and other New York-based employers.

And with more of the kind of strong, smart and fact-based actions we’ve come to appreciate these last several months, we’re confident New York State can again show the nation how to lead and fulfill the potential of both the ADA and our own state’s landmark program for people with disabilities.

Maureen O’Brien (@MaureenOB518) is President/CEO of New York State Industries for the Disabled (@NYSIDSpeaks)