WASHINGTON ― Several prominent disability rights activists are rallying behind Tom Perez’s candidacy to chair the Democratic National Committee, in recognition of his work on behalf of those they represent.
As assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice and the secretary of labor in the Obama administration, Perez used previously untapped or underutilized powers to ensure the integration of people with disabilities into their communities and workplaces, these advocates emphasize.
Now, they are hoping to use the DNC race to solidify their status as a key progressive political constituency, at a time when they expect their policy priorities will be under attack.
“When you think about the role of DNC chair, that’s tasked with building local and state parties, that’s tasked with leading the pushback against some of the horrible things Donald Trump wants to do on disability, having someone with a preexisting relationship to the community and an intuitive grasp of these issues is going to be important,” said Ari Ne’eman, founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, a group run by and for people on the autism spectrum.
Perez’s supporters in the disability rights community point to two major ways in which he’s advanced their cause: enabling more people with disabilities to live independently, and expanding their job opportunities.
Having someone with a preexisting relationship to the community and an intuitive grasp of these issues is going to be important.
Ari Ne’eman, founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network
While at the DOJ from 2009 to 2013, Perez used the weight of the federal government to aggressively enforce the United States Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision requiring states to integrate people with disabilities into their communities, rather than separate them in institutions, as long as those individuals can “handle and benefit” from such an arrangement.
It is a decision advocates frequently describe as the disability rights community’s equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education, which deemed separating black and white children in the public school system to be unconstitutional.
Yet Sam Bagenstos, Perez’s deputy in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division ― and now a cheerleader for his DNC candidacy ― recounted the political barriers they faced in taking on states that were not in compliance with the decision.
“It had not been enforced so aggressively because a lot of people didn’t like it ― state governments, some foot-dragging among the unions representing workers in the institutions,” said Bagenstos, who is currently a constitutional law professor at the University Michigan Law School.
Bagenstos said Perez “made a real commitment” to the Olmstead enforcement cases “at a very personal level.”
A 2010 Olmstead settlement with Georgia ― the first such agreement of Perez’s tenure ― required the state to spend $77 million to move hundreds of people with disabilities out of state-run mental hospitals. From 2002 to 2006, 115 residents of those facilities died under dubious circumstances, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation ― including 14-year-old Sarah Crider.
“I have had conversations with people who have directly benefitted from that litigation. In some cases they are 40, 50, 60 years old experiencing getting up and being able to decide what shirt they put on and what color their curtains are going to be for the first time in their lives,” said Larkin Taylor-Parker, a disability rights advocate completing her third year of law school in Georgia.
Apart from his pioneering Olmstead decision enforcement, Perez’s Civil Rights Division also found imaginative ways to take on powerful interests, including those in the technology sector.
“This was complicated politically because the high-tech world does not like being regulated, and the high-tech world was deeply marbled inside of the Obama White House,” Bagenstos said.
For example, Perez threatened to sue universities that had adopted a Kindle for digital textbooks that was inaccessible to blind and vision-impaired students.
Although the DOJ targeted universities, its goal was to force Amazon and other technology companies to develop relatively simple upgrades that would make their products more usable for those with vision issues.
Perez’s pressure prompted Amazon to make the Kindle more accessible, according to Bagenstos.
“It was creative, it was aggressive and it made a big difference,” he said.
As secretary of labor, Perez continued to use innovative tools to help people with disabilities.
When President Barack Obama issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for workers under federal contracts to $10.10 an hour in 2014, Perez insisted that it cover workers with disabilities earning the sub-minimum wage, according to Alison Barkoff, who was special counsel for Olmstead enforcement in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division from 2010 to 2014.
Perez, an opponent of the sub-minimum wage, told Politico after the rule’s enactment that he hoped it would inspire states to ban the practice.
We are the hidden army. Whether you are talking about passing legislation or getting someone elected, that hidden army is a potent force.
Ari Ne’eman, founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, speaking about the disability rights community
In addition, Barkoff, who was a member of a Department of Labor committee tasked with developing ways to increase job opportunities for people with disabilities, commended Perez’s investment in the committee’s work.
“Tom really committed the resources of the Department of Labor to make that a success,” she said.
The head of the DNC is charged with fundraising and candidate recruitment, not policymaking. But activists reason that there is potential power in having a battle-tested ally at the helm of the Democratic Party.
“If we had a known supporter heading one of the major political parties, I suspect that would benefit the policies of enhanced self-determination that we are really trying to further right now,” said Taylor-Parker, who is autistic and begins work as a disability rights lawyer in North Carolina in the fall.
Ne’eman is eager to build on the attention they received from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as the community gears up to fight President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda. Clinton gave a campaign speech dedicated to disability rights issues and backed eliminating the sub-minimum wage.
“The disability community sometimes feels like the orphaned step-child of the progressive movement,” Ne’eman said. “The Clinton campaign recognized that the disability community is one of the remaining great untapped forces in American politics.”
He sees the contentious fight over the DNC chairmanship as a chance for the disability rights community to flex its muscles for a friend ― and solidify its status as a constituency Democrats cannot afford to ignore.
“We are the hidden army. Whether you are talking about passing legislation or getting someone elected, that hidden army is a potent force,” he added.