Thirty-one years ago, when President George H.W. Bush put pen to paper and signed the landmark civil rights legislation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, Michael Morris was sitting in the audience at the White House.
Years later, Michael would establish National Disability Institute (NDI), the nation’s preeminent nonprofit focused solely on the financial empowerment of people with disabilities. “I’m most proud that what started as a small idea to focus on poverty reduction has grown into the size of the organization we have today,” says Michael, NDI Founder and Senior Policy Advisor, “which continues to impact individual and systems thinking and behavior nationwide.”
Sixteen years later, NDI has grown to include over 30 staff members from across the nation with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences of disability. Some also remember witnessing the ADA’s signing.
“I remember it being on the news and seeing Justin Dart sitting next to President Bush, and I was so proud that the law passed,” says Nancy Boutot, Manager of Financial Empowerment.
“I remember when the ADA was signed. It took a while to fully realize all that this civil rights legislation had to offer, but we all were very excited,” says Rebecca Salon, Principal Investigator/Senior Policy Advisor. “It totally changed the way people with disabilities thought about, talked about and asserted their rights.”
Part of the ADA states that “the Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.” For almost two decades now, NDI has worked to fulfill the ADA’s promise of providing economic self-sufficiency for all people with disabilities.
But what does economic self-sufficiency mean?
“Being economically self-sufficient means that one does not depend on others’ help to have the financial means to have a good quality of life and all that entails,” says Andrea Urqueta Alfaro, Director of Research. “This includes work satisfaction, community participation, political empowerment, access to healthcare and education.”
“It means actively taking steps towards managing one’s income and benefits, paying bills on time, developing a good credit history, regularly saving for the future and being able to recover from a financial crisis,” says Laurie Schaller, Manager of Financial Empowerment.
“The ADA’s goal of economic self-sufficiency means that individuals with disabilities are not in a position where they need to depend on public benefits in order to survive; that they are afforded the same access as anyone else for full participation in employment and life in general.” says Kish Pisani, Project Coordinator. “Disability rights are human rights and persons with disabilities have the same rights as anyone else — and that includes solid financial wellness.”
Currently, NDI reaches over a million people a year through its research, advocacy, policy development, financial education and training and technical assistance. These projects include the ABLE National Resource Center, American Dream Employment Network (ADEN), Assistive Technology Loan Program, Center for Disability-Inclusive Community Development and Financial Resilience Center.
“It’s incredible to think of how many people have been touched through [our work]…we are setting the stage for every one of our participants to be fully prepared for a major financial change in their life,” says Michelle Bornhoft, ADEN Project Coordinator.
“Our work has influenced how federal policy is implemented and understood related to employment services and how they include people with disabilities,” says Doug Keast, Project Manager.
“Work incentives provide hope to beneficiaries who want to become economically self-sufficient,” says Kevin Nickerson, Co-director of ADEN. “I am most proud of helping hundreds of SSA beneficiaries get back to work gainfully and off SSA benefits.”
“I am most proud of being on a team where we are building a curriculum to teach young adults with disabilities how to manage their finances while navigating through their own communities. It is exciting to see the new faces coming to hear about what we do,” says Bridgett Graham, Financial Coach.
“I have been working in the field of disability services for 42 years…The experience has been phenomenal. Some days I look back to what we thought was innovative, responsive, quality support at that time and realize how it was only a beginning and how much progress has been made,” says Mary Lynn Revoir, Co-Director of ADEN. “This reflection makes me realize there are greater things to come.”
As we celebrate the 31st anniversary of the ADA, we reflect on these successes while also acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.
“Sometimes you turn a corner and find yourself in a place that seems untouched by the ADA. The people, places and things are set back in time and it is quite horrifying. There are more corners like this than I care to acknowledge,” says Laura Gleneck, Division Director. “Means-tested benefits hold people back in all aspects of their life. They are not inclusive of equal opportunity.”
“Employment is still not an equal or fair game, for a myriad of reasons,” says Sarah Loizeaux, Technical Assistance Liaison. “Massive systemic changes, as well as our society’s perception of disability, are required to make equal employment a reality.”
In particular, as NDI works to fulfill the ADA’s promise of economic self-sufficiency, it’s imperative to acknowledge the intersectionality of disability and increase our inclusion efforts.
“There is a large, and often understudied, overlap in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and disability communities of the United States,” says Elizabeth Layman, Administrative Assistant.
“I believe that we need to strive for more equity and inclusion in this space, and I’m proud to serve as a catalyst in this effort,” says Bill Gould, NDI’s Director of Equity and Inclusion. “Financial inclusion, empowerment and meaningful employment are vital for well-being for the disabled population – particularly for BIPOC individuals with disabilities.”
“These are not just goals or platitudes, but a promise,” says Tom Foley, NDI Executive Director. “A promise for civil and economic justice, that inclusion and opportunity should, simply, be available to everyone. We will only accomplish this by working together. Corporations, government, allies and disability advocates all working toward the shared goal will make the promises of the ADA a reality for all people with disabilities. The ADA is not something to reflect upon only once a year, but it is an obligation, a shared responsibility, a vow, to what will be!”
We, at National Disability Institute, will continue our 16-year commitment to building a better financial future for all people with disabilities. Join us.