Jim Tuscher


May 1 is an international celebration of victories in worker rights, called International Workers’ Day or May Day. However, for people with disabilities, it is hard to recognize this day as a positive because they continue to lag behind in employment opportunities and equality.

This past May 1, in a discussion with another colleague in the disability rights movement, we talked about the development of a “second wave” that is denoted by a focus on employment and education. We see this nationally with legislation like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and on the state level with New Hampshire making subminimum wages illegal. We see it locally with programs like AccessibleSTL, which provides services like Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) site surveys, customized training and education and policy review and development to businesses.

This is not to say that the “first wave” didn’t have pieces of these included, but it was certainly more focused on gaining access to and just being in the community. The celebration of the ADA as well as the beginning of the Independent Living Movement are important events from the first wave. So this year, as there are celebrations of workers’ rights internationally and as we mark the important 25th anniversary of the ADA, we ought to remember the lack of progress regarding the rights of people with disabilities as workers.

In our 25 years with the ADA, there has been little change in the employment rate of people with disabilities — just above 17 percent nationally, compared to a 64.6 percent employment rate for people without a disability. Additionally, nearly half of everyone who identifies as having a disability in St. Louis and St. Louis County — nearly 54,000 people — are not in the workforce. After nearly a quarter-century with the ADA, this is unacceptable.

What’s worse is that the St. Louis region is actually better than the national average, where 8 out of 10 people with disabilities are not in the workforce. Moreover, this figure represents people with disabilities left out of the workforce altogether and does not include the unemployment number for people with disabilities actively looking for work — this number is 12.5 percent among all workers with disabilities looking for work and just under 22 percent for black workers with disabilities. I highlight these numbers because we, as a movement, need to know what we are up against. We have fought hard for people with disabilities to have the right to physically be here and in the community. Now that we have fuller access to the community, we continue to look for equal opportunities. But we have to fight.

While this time of year we reflect on major wins for the community from international workers’ rights to the ADA, we still have the very real and costly issue of underemployment and underinclusion of people with disabilities to change. This means that as a movement, we have to get back to in-the-street actions, continued grasstops advocacy and litigation and legal advocacy.

Sometimes folks forget about the real need for direct actions that put political pressure needed to drive change. After all, this is how we won Section 504 and the ADA. The late Jim Tuscher, former vice president of public policy at Paraquad, understood the need for multiple fronts (including direct actions) to exist, and that’s why St. Louis has been a leader in building a powerful and dynamic disability rights movement.

I hope that next year during International Workers’ Day and the 26th anniversary of the ADA we are writing blogs about the organized national movement for the rights of workers with disabilities to full and equal access to all employment opportunities.

Derek Wetherell is the Systems Organizer at Paraquad. He can be reached at dwetherell@paraquad.org.

One comment on “Second Wave of the Disability Rights Movement”

  1. 1
    Kris Samson on June 26, 2015

    Jim Tuscher once wrote in an op-ed for the Post-Dispatch,

    “Disabled people share the American dream…We want to make the most of our capabilities, and we want the opportunity to succeed or fail on our own merit. For too long, disabled Americans have been overprotected and, consequently, not able to make independent decisions. By achieving their independence, disabled people become a productive part of the system, evolving from tax consumers to taxpayers.”

    He had a vision for people with disabilities that went beyond simply being a part of the community, he believed in a future where they not only participated, but truly contributed to the greater good of everyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.