I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvard Professor Michael Stein about a wide range of issues affecting people with disabilities. Professor Stein is an internationally recognized expert on disability rights, who participated in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and actively consults with international governments on their disability laws and policies.
Below is part one of the interview. Part two will appear on the blog very soon.
– Ephraim Gopin
The ADA has been a mixed bag. It’s been extraordinarily successful in creating access to public places and public accommodation, but it’s been extraordinarily unsuccessful in affecting employment.
According to many studies, the ADA has had a major effect as far as making the public areas a place where people with and without disabilities can come and go at their leisure and more accessible for people with disabilities. It has improved the quality of people’s lives immeasurably.
As far as employment, we’ve seen a consistent decrease in employment and holding since well before the ADA. It was hoped that the ADA would improve the employment situation but it has not. (Michael has studied disability employment in the US for over 25 years and around the world. A book on this topic will be coming out next month.)
2) What’s the most jarring finding you have found from your studies?
Almost 80% of working age adults with disabilities are unemployed. When the overall unemployment rate reached 9%, it was considered a matter of great public attention and almost a national crisis. But yet the national disability unemployment rate has never been lower than 66% and over the last few years it has held steady at nearly at 80%. The fact that it doesn’t raise the same sort of red flags and calls to action is concerning.
3) Is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) really a game changer? If yes, how so?
I view the CRPD as a remarkable tool that can be used to leverage change. It ultimately depends on local civil societies and how they use the tools. We see it as a lever on a national level for the creation of progressive and inclusive laws, policies and programming.
On an international level we see it being very effective in how the UN approaches disabilities. We’re seeing donor organizations now changing their guidelines to be inclusive- not as special projects but included in all the projects they’re doing bilaterally. On the individual national level- it really depends on the social and legal culture, what the alternatives are and how active the civil society is, which shows how conducive government is to change. In some places, I’ve been told by ministers that they will not change their policies. In other places, it’s been a wake-up call, it’s been an educational device and policy makers have begun to think how to approach differently almost invariably their largest minority group.
Is it a game- changer? At the end of the day, it depends how active civil society is and how well they pair with non-disability sectors to find areas of common interest and team up with them on projects.
4) The state of technology for people with disabilities- passing grade? Are apps made with people with disabilities in mind? If not, that’s a huge population to not serve.
Globally, new technology has in some areas embraced inclusion. The technology is certainly there to make all these apps accessible. The technology is cheap and incredibly easy to implement. But by and large, the needs and rights of people with disability are not taken into account.
It’s frustrating- I hear the anger and exclusion from many friends and different groups. Especially because this is a new world created by supposedly young, savvy, cosmopolitan people who have no excuse for excluding people with disabilities. To embed barriers into new structures seems to me to be a lost opportunity as well as a harmful and avoidable phenomenon.
Big businesses are by & large aware of it and some are more savvy than others. Microsoft has been rather good on accessibility. Amazon, on the other hand, has been obnoxious on the issue. For example, Amazon has been approached time and again about the Kindle but refuses to make it accessible.
5) Employment discrimination: Do you believe that people with disabilities face barriers to finding a job?
Empirical evidence from all over the globe suggests there’s a real disconnect policy-wise when we think about people with disabilities and the workplace. In terms of Western notions, people are viewed either as work capable or disabled; if they’re disabled, then they’re not meant to be working. We don’t think enough about people’s different abilities, how to cultivate those abilities, getting them integrated into the workplace, why work is valuable especially when it comes to interacting with other people.
Michael Stein holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and is the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. An internationally acclaimed expert on disability law and policy, Stein participated in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, works with disabled persons organizations around the world, actively consults with international governments on their disability laws and policies, and advises a number of United Nations bodies.