Thornburgh Family Lecture Series

Disability Law and Public Policy

Joyce A. Bender, CEO and President, Bender Consulting Services, Inc.

November 6, 2013


It is an honor for me to be asked to be one of the distinguished Thornburgh Family Lecture Series speakers.  Words cannot adequately express how important this opportunity is to me. 

To speak before the man who helped create freedom for Americans with disabilities with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Governor Thornburgh is humbling.  He will be remembered in history, as the attorney general, who served during the George H.W. Bush Administration, who enforced the civil rights of all Americans with Disabilities, with the passage of this great law.

Also, to speak in front of Mrs. Ginny Thornburgh, who works tirelessly to support people with disabilities and their families as they seek spiritual and religious access is also humbling. My hope is that I will be able to advance the great work they have already done, if only to a small degree.

Dick and Ginny, thank you for creating this wonderful forum as a result of your generous contribution to the Pittsburgh School of Law, when honored by the American Association of People with Disabilities, with the Henry B. Betts Award. You have lived the spirit of the award by demonstrating a strong vision and understanding of how to improve the quality of life for Americans with disabilities and serving as a powerful force for change, enhancing the opportunities for people with disabilities to participate fully in all aspects of society.

My Background

Many people ask me why I became a crusader for the competitive employment of people with disabilities; it all began with an intermission in my life.  We all, at some time in our lives will experience a traumatic event that causes an intermission in our life; what shapes us and defines our future trajectory is how we deal with that trauma.

On a Sunday evening, in February of 1985, my husband and I made a decision to go to the movie theater, to see the critically acclaimed film Amadeus. This award winning movie is about the life of one of my favorite composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

This movie is great; but, it is also quite long. For that reason, the scheduled movie intermission, intersected with my life intermission; this event would in fact define my future life's work.  It really is unbelievable that even the movie I selected, one that included an intermission, would factor into my life's work. Absent the intermission, my story would likely be very different.

As a young teenager and young adult, I would often faint.  For example, at the age of 16, I had an appointment at the dentist to have a tooth extracted.  At some point, I fainted in the chair.  When I came to, my dentist told me I must really be afraid of visiting the dentist.  Although I did not enjoy visiting the dentist, I was amazed on that particular day I fainted due to fear; I did not feel that nervous or fearful.  There were other occasions when I fainted and my parents attributed it to low blood pressure.  I often wondered why I was one of the few teenagers who had fainted so often.

Later on, in my 20’s, it seemed to happen more often, be more pronounced and often be accompanied by vomiting.  My husband and I decided to arrange an appointment with our family doctor to make sure there wasn't something else going on that we needed to address.  After describing to the doctor what was happening he told me "Don't worry – you are fine."  The doctor did not conduct any type of neurological test and told me he thought my fainting spells were due to some hormonal fluctuation; I believed him. After all, at that time, I thought the doctor was always right…I was wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, this long film, Amadeus had an intermission.  At that intermission I went to get a soda at the concession stand and my husband went to the restroom.

The last thing I remember is approaching the concession stand, before I awakened at Mercy Hospital in the intensive care unit. I still remember the doctor asking me my name, asking me to move my arms and my legs and asking me the name of the current President of the United States.  I knew my name, moved my arms and legs and then wondered…what kind of place am I in, if the doctor does not know Ronald Reagan is the President of the United States!

The doctor explained to me that I had a seizure at the movie theater and hit the floor so hard that I fractured my skull, incurred an intracranial brain hemorrhage and dislocated the three bones in my inner ear, resulting in hearing loss in my right ear. My husband, Bill had to consent to immediate brain surgery for me to recover. He did and here I am today, having experienced a miraculous recovery.

When I came to, I experienced the real shock, the realization that I was living with epilepsy, me and 3 million other Americans.  The "fainting spells" I had years ago were really tonic seizures.  Still today, physicians do not realize that many types of seizures do not all include a convulsion. Because of my experience, I am still helping to educate the medical community to prevent further misdiagnosis.

As you might guess, these words were hard to digest – me, living with epilepsy?  I was well aware of the stigma of epilepsy or being referred to as a person who has "fits." I also knew that most people, out of shame, kept this diagnosis secret. Even my family did not accept this diagnosis for a long time.

Growing up, my next door neighbor lived with epilepsy. One day, when I was a child, my neighbor was doing this "strange thing on the ground" and my mother told me not to look. Now I know, that “strange thing” was a seizure.  This is a story I vividly remember, now with great regret, that no one, due to fear helped her.

Beginning of My Service

I was in the hospital for two months, as traumatic brain injury requires rehabilitation; then, I finally returned to work.  I was a partner at an executive search firm and later went on to be full owner of Bender and Associates, a firm specializing in information technology search and recruitment.  This experience in executive search also went on to factor in my success in finding employment for Americans with disabilities, as I was very skilled in recruitment, interviewing, and obtaining employment in the private sector.  I knew it all revolved around professionalism, work ethics and of course performance at the job.  It is a fact, that the only reason companies hire people with disabilities, is if it benefits the bottom line.

In 1986, I was contacted by a partner at Deloitte and Touche, who shared an opportunity with me. She indicated the CEO of PPG Industries was the chair of the board of a small technical training program at the Community College of Allegheny County, The Institute of Advanced Technology. This was a computer programmer training program for students with disabilities; she asked me if I would help in the placement area.

I was happy to support this program, as I specialized in information technology search and I too had disabilities.  I remember when I first went to the school to meet the students. Based on their talent, skills and abilities and my customer contacts in Pittsburgh, I thought I would likely be able to help the students find employment, in a very short period of time.  Of course, I had no idea of the high unemployment of Americans with disabilities.  I had no idea that the stigma towards employing people with disabilities created an attitudinal barrier that was almost insurmountable to break through. 

President George H.W. Bush, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, broke down barriers for Americans with disabilities that enabled accessible housing, transportation, and physical access to the workplace with ramps, Braille on elevators, TTYs; access to education for students, and of course, prevented discrimination in employment.  Based on the employment statistics for Americans with disabilities, it appears that many employers did not heed President Bush's declaration on that wonderful day on the South Lawn of the White House, when he said, "Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down." He intended for the employment exclusion wall to come tumbling down as well.

Beginning of Bender Consulting Services

For the next 10 years, I did volunteer work, trying to find employment for graduates of the Institute of Advanced Technology. I called company after company and only one company, Highmark, interviewed and hired two students. As a result of my limited success, and my frustration, which was due to the lack of belief of those business people in the abilities of people with disabilities, I decided to form Bender Consulting Services, Inc. in 1995, a for-profit company focused on the competitive employment of people with disabilities; for profit, means "no pity."  As I will discuss, pity is a form of discrimination that has contributed to maintaining the barriers of competitive employment for people with disabilities.  People with disabilities need Paychecks, not Pity! Even today, when I tell employers that my candidates are people with disabilities, with training in information technology, engineering, law, and many other professional disciplines, they are shocked. They cannot believe people with disabilities have these skills.

It was one man, Bill Lowry, the CEO of Highmark, who really was instrumental in making my dream a reality.  I asked him to support my new company, by bringing on six employees with disabilities as subcontractors, in their information technology department, for three years. This was an enormous request in 1995. Companies were not hiring people with disabilities, let alone paying a subcontracting company to bring them on board. It took him one day to say yes…one day!  I always tell him, if there had been no Highmark, there would be no Bender- and he always tells me some way or another it would have still happened. Today we work, recruiting individuals with disabilities, across the U.S. and Canada.

Why is there an Unemployment Issue?

So why then, after all these years of work, has the needle not moved on competitive employment? Why is it a long, long process to get a new customer to be willing to enter into a disability employment partnership with Bender Consulting?

In September 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data showed a labor force participation rate of 20.9% for individuals with disabilities, compared with 68.8% of individuals without disabilities. BLS data showed an unemployment rate of 13.1% for individuals with disabilities, compared with an unemployment rate of 6.8% for individuals without disabilities.

Do you know that the poverty rate for individuals with disabilities, age 18 to 64 in 2011, was 28.8 percent, compared to 12.5 percent for individuals without a disability?

For this reason, I always remind people that competitive employment for people with disabilities is freedom…freedom to buy a home, buy a car, go on vacation and leave the ranks of poverty. 

Foundation of Discrimination

It is always difficult for employers to address the reasons they do not hire people with disabilities.  Often, I wonder where this discrimination started and why.

Many people over the years have offered the same reasons – ignorance and fear.  When I ask an employer what they fear, I hear about financial risks, the potential for litigation, and accommodation costs.

I believe it goes deeper.  I believe it stems from being uncomfortable seeing people with disabilities in the workplace. I know this sounds harsh, but I want to go back in history to see how this theme has played out.

When I first read Susan Schweik's, The Ugly Laws (History of Disability), I was outraged and shocked.  I could not believe there was a time in U.S. history when people with disabilities were subjected to something so reprehensible…laws that stated that people with disabilities were hideous and should be arrested if they were seen in public.

From 1894 to 1913, people with disabilities on street corners in Chicago, Los Angeles and in other states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, were arrested on the basis of violating unsightly beggar ordinances, the ugly laws. 

You may think this heinous law would have been completely abolished in the 1900s, but as recently as 1974, a judge in Omaha arrested the last unsightly beggar – a person with a disability.

One of the people discussed as a key example in the book is a young man who sold newspapers for a living. An old photograph shows him with a sweet smile on his face holding a stack of newspapers.  He was a person with club hands and feet and he worked for a living selling newspapers. This was not a man who wanted pity; he wanted to work.

According to the Chicago Tribune, this young man’s life changed drastically, when a councilman in Chicago prepared a new ordinance and submitted it to the council to "abolish all street obstructions." Little did many know these “obstructions of scenery" turned out to be humans!  The young man was arrested and lost something precious – his job.

As you may know, people with disabilities were often seen at fairs and carnivals not as patrons, but as “freaks” in the “freak shows.” Still today, the bad person in a movie is often a person with a visible disability, as was Captain Hook and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The serial killer is frequently seen as a person who escaped an "insane asylum” and is usually seen without regard to human life – the bad guys.

Today, this fear has often been disguised as pity and pity leads to people with disabilities being thought of as inferior. Many times, I have heard someone look at one of my employees and tell me they feel sorry for them; the only thing they know about this person is the way they look, not who they are, what they do and how they contribute. So many people have asked me if some of my employees ever go out to dinner or to the movies; they have asked me if they can they get married. They are referring to beautiful young men and women who use a wheelchair or are blind or are amputees.  Yes, they are brilliant and yet, they are pitied.

One corporate executive told me not to refer people with disabilities as candidates for their jobs if they looked as if they had really severe disabilities; he said it would be too difficult for them to fit in.  Why? – Because of the way they look.  He said, "I feel sorry for them, but I can't hire them."

Pity translates to not being equal to the standards of performance as those who are “able-bodied”, within the context of hiring. Pity means unemployment. Pity means poverty.

Disability Advocacy

But wait…here is the good news; people with disabilities…we don't want pity – we want paychecks.  We are going to get it; we are going to be able to have equal access to work.

There is a great paradigm shift that has occurred through advocacy, through disability rights.

Young people with disabilities are not waiting for the “knight in shining armor” to save them anymore…to hire them; they are going to make it happen on their own. Leaders in the disability community have paved the way for our young people with disabilities to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams through education. And if they do not have a college degree, they can work in other business areas or in a trade.

Many young people with disabilities today do not care what others see in them; they know disability does not define them. They are not ashamed of their disability; they are proud.

Young people with disabilities are going out, networking with business people and they are pursuing careers; because, they are being educated.  They are graduating from college and universities with graduate degrees in fields such as engineering, mathematics, finance, and many other disciplines.  They are not listening to the naysayers. They are becoming confident; they are not ashamed and they are not waiting.

Those of us who have grown-up with disabilities are telling our young people with disabilities to "Speak up and speak out!” as my mentor Tony Coelho has admonished all of us, young and old to do. We are people who have pride in our disability culture.

We are building and educating young people with disabilities to believe in their own greatness and to “Lead On!” As the great Justin Dart Jr. taught us, these young people not only vote – they will be future leaders in Congress, Senate and in the White House.

There are of course adults who are living with disabilities, who have also gained dignity and pride; they are living the dream of freedom. But, for young and old alike, we still have a long way to go to attain the dream of freedom, through competitive employment. We must all work together to stress the great abilities that people with disabilities have to offer to both private and public sector employers.

People with disabilities are a great talent pool of people with great skills.  They are a group of people who want to work. As Tony Coelho often says, “We are the only group of people who want to pay taxes.”

Business Case for Hiring People with Disabilities

Employers sometimes do not realize the economic value of employing people with disabilities.

People with disabilities consistently demonstrate one of the top characteristics and traits that lead to superior performance at work; that is gratitude. In various studies, businesses have found that gratitude is a trait that leads to success at work; most people with disabilities are grateful to receive a job offer, grateful to go to work every day and grateful to have an opportunity to contribute.

In addition, studies have shown that people with disabilities have an above average attendance record as a result of being grateful. People with disabilities see competitive employment as a treasure. Often, people I have referred for jobs are not only at work every day; they are also at work early. It has been shown that employees with disabilities have a record of being dedicated and loyal to a company; that translates to high retention rates, which means profit for any company.  This is a result of gratitude.

Walgreens, Lowes, and other retailers with a large distribution center network have positively impacted employment of people with disabilities.  As a result of the leadership of Randy Lewis, a retired Walgreens executive, the business case for employing people with disabilities is moving in the direction of recognizing the positive impact on employee engagement that results when people with disabilities are included in the workforce.  The employee engagement factors increase, not just for the associates with disabilities, but as well with all employees within the workforce.  An "engaged employee" is one who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, and as a result will act in a way that furthers their organization's interests. According to Scarlett Surveys, "Employee Engagement is a measurable degree of an employee's positive or negative emotional attachment to their job, colleagues and organization that profoundly influences their willingness to learn and perform at work".  This proves that hiring people with disabilities does make business sense.

Dispelling the Employment Myths

In addition to working together to stress the great abilities that people with disabilities have to offer to both private and public sector employers, we must all work together to dispel the myths held by some employers.

Employers often think accommodations for people with disabilities will be high costs; but the average cost of an accommodation in the United States, according to the Job Accommodation Network, is only $600 dollars.

Another myth is that employers often think they will not find people with disabilities who have the skills to do their jobs.  I frequently hear this concern within the context of the STEM areas, science, technology, engineering and math. My company frequently recruits people with disabilities who have this type of background.  For one specific government customer, we recruit 200 people with disabilities per year with an academic background in engineering, computer science and mathematics.  People with disabilities with training in STEM areas do exist.

The Future is Now

People have asked me over the years when I predict we will see change, in the area of employment of people with disabilities.  I believe we will see change soon, for many reasons.  One is the recent “game changer” in this space, referred to as Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act.  For more than 40 years this law has required federal contractors and subcontractors to affirmatively recruit, hire, train and promote qualified people with disabilities; it was never enforced.

On August 27, 2013, Vice-president Biden announced a reformed 503 rule that introduces a hiring goal for federal contractors and subcontractors that 7 percent of each job group in their workforce are qualified individuals with disabilities.  The spirit of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, signed into law by President Nixon, has been realized with this new rule and will be implemented by contractors, by March 2014. This will have an enormous impact on hiring of Americans with disabilities, as 22% of employees in America work for federal contractors or subcontractors. This gives us great hope.

We will not change attitudes overnight; but, like the Civil Rights Act of 1963, it is a start.  We know that racism is not gone, but who would have thought that an African American would become President of the United States.

I believe that in our life-time we will see a major improvement in the competitive employment of people with disabilities. I believe it may take time, but it will happen.

Years ago, when a young disability advocate expressed his frustration about the speed of change after the ADA was signed in to law, the late Justin Dart Jr. responded to him, “The Ten Commandments were written long ago, but many, many people are still not consistently living those commandments." 

I believe that one day we will live in a world, where talent is the only discriminator, when it comes to hiring.