Janet Reno

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was still a very young law,  the Department of Justice filed its first lawsuit, against the Becker CPA Exam review course.  Some people who wanted to take the review course for the CPA exam, and who were also deaf, had requested that Becker provide sign language interpreters for the course, and Becker refused.  DOJ tried to negotiate with the respected review course, but Becker did not budge.  So, late in 1992, DOJ filed its first ADA lawsuit.

A year and a half later, the parties reached a settlement, with Becker agreeing at long last to provide interpreters to students who needed them, and paying monetary awards to the named complainants. The complainants were finally able to fully participate in the review course, and when they then took the CPA exam, they passed at a rate even higher than others.

I had the honor of working on that case as a trial attorney at DOJ.  When the first of those complainants passed the CPA exam, he wrote a very nice “thank you” note to the head of the Department, Janet Reno.  Janet Reno then sent me a personal note, thanking me for my work on the case.   I have that note, framed, on my bookshelf still today.

Janet Reno was the first female attorney general in the United States. In 1991, she came to a Department of Justice that many believed had become too political,  a Department that many worried had lost its professional reputation.  Janet Reno was a consummate professional and was extremely hard working — the legend was that she kept a sleeping bag in her office for the many all-nighters she had to pull.  Her work ethic went far to reinvigorating a dispirited Department.

But like a truly great leader, she did not claim  the victories to be hers alone  She gave credit all the way down the line.

I am saddened by the news of her passing over the weekend, but warmed by the memory of her strong and compassionate leadership.  Her model of leadership will live on.

 

Employing people with disabilities is just good business

When you employ someone with a disability, you add a dimension of diversity that you can not acquire any other way.  That perspective can prove to be very valuable to any business.  But in addition, there may be bottom line savings and benefits for your business when you support employment for people with disabilities.  Businesses accommodating people with disabilities may qualify for some of the following tax credits and deductions. More detailed information may be found in the IRS publications referenced below.

Disabled Access Credit

The Disabled Access Credit provides a non-refundable credit for small businesses that incur expenditures for the purpose of providing access to persons with disabilities. An eligible small business is one that that earned $1 million or less or had no more than 30 full time employees in the previous year; they may take the credit each and every year they incur access expenditures. Refer to Form 8826, Disabled Access Credit (PDF), for information about eligible expenditures.

Barrier Removal Tax Deduction

The Architectural Barrier Removal Tax Deduction encourages businesses of any size to remove architectural and transportation barriers to the mobility of persons with disabilities and the elderly. Businesses may claim a deduction of up to $15,000 a year for qualified expenses for items that normally must be capitalized. Businesses claim the deduction by listing it as a separate expense on their income tax return. Also, businesses may use the Disabled Tax Credit and the architectural/transportation tax deduction together in the same tax year, if the expenses meet the requirements of both sections. To use both, the deduction is equal to the difference between the total expenditures and the amount of the credit claimed.

Work Opportunity Credit

The Work Opportunity Credit provides eligible employers with a tax credit up to 40 percent of the first $6,000 of first-year wages of a new employee if the employee is part of a “targeted group.” An employee with a disability is one of the targeted groups for the Work Opportunity Credit, provided the appropriate government agencies have certified the employee as disabled. The credit is available to the employer once the employee has worked for at least 120 hours or 90 days. Employers claim the credit on Form 5884, Work Opportunity Credit (PDF).

https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/tax-benefits-for-businesses-who-have-employees-with-disabilities?_ga=1.203027281.1533059427.1477330477

What a great way to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and save your business some money at the same time!

Employment works!

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month!  This year, we celebrate the 71st anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.  This is a wonderful opportunity to recognize the ways individuals with disabilities strengthen our workforce, our communities, and our country.

At dLCV, we are so fortunate to be able to have many coworkers who have disabilities or who have family members with disabilities.  We have daily testimony of how valuable this resource really is.

Many disabled Americans make unique contributions to the economy, but this should not be “news.”  Our history is full of examples of valuable contributions.   For example, Thomas Edison the inventor of the light bulb, was severally hearing-impaired.

Around the age of 12, Edison lost almost all his hearing, possibly because of scarlet fever.  His disability did not discourage him.  In his 84 years, Edison acquired 1,093 patents.  His laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., was often called the invention factory.  It was there that he invented the phonograph, motivated by the machine’s ability to play material useful to blind individuals.

Americans with disabilities make up almost 20% of our population.  Sadly, people with disabilities are unemployed at a rate that is twice that of people without disabilities.   Most of those Americans with disabilities want to work and with some accommodation (many times the accommodation costing employers less than $500 per employee) can be creative and productive employees.  Many employers who pay for accommodations are eligible for tax credits and tax deductions.

As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, let us continue to work to remove obstacles to employment, so every American has a chance to be employed.

Voting in Virginia

Virginia values its traditions.  This is true in many aspects of our civic life in the Commonwealth, but perhaps no more so than in the way we conduct our elections.   While many other states are willing to experiment with new fangled ideas like early voting or same day registration, Virginia resists change.  Virginia likes things just the way they are, thank you very much.

The problem for us is that “just the way they are” often works to exclude people with disabilities.

Virginia was very slow to allow people with disabilities to vote “absentee” if they were unable to get to the polling place.  The idea of increased use of absentee voting was just too much of a change.  Although the legislature eventually adopted that tiny bit of reform seven years ago, each year the legislature rejects proposals to allow changes like no-excuse absentee voting or even absentee voting for people over the age of 65.  Ideas like automatic voter registration when you get a driver’s license (“motor voter” laws) don’t even make it to committee in our legislature.

Most people with disabilities would prefer to have the option to vote on election day, in the same polling place as their neighbors.  But that option is not a real one throughout Virginia.  In March, dLCV surveyed more than 200 polling places, and found that 24% of the locations we visited had some barrier to voting for people with disabilities.  If that percentage bears out across the Commonwealth, it means that hundreds of polling locations are, in some way, inaccessible to people with disabilities.

We recently shared our survey results with the State Board of Elections, with the hope that they will take action to improve opportunities to vote for people with disabilities prior to the general election in November.  We will let you know whether they do that, or if they, too, like to keep things “just the way they are.”

Antonin Scalia

The late Justice Antonin Scalia will be remembered for many things.  Here at the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, we remember him as the author of the Supreme Court’s 2011 opinion in VOPA v. Stewart, the decision that ultimately lead to the complete independence of Virginia’s protection and advocacy system.

A few years ago, Virginia’s protection and advocacy organization was a somewhat independent state agency, the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy.  Although state law referred to VOPA as “independent,” its state agency status still presented serious obstacles.  For example, when VOPA investigated suspicious deaths and injuries at state-operated facilities, the state refused to provide all the relevant evidence requested.  VOPA sued the state to get that information, but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that one state agency could not sue another state agency.   The investigations came to a halt.

VOPA appealed the 4th Circuit decision to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the special role, created by federal law, of the watchdog agency should give it the ability to sue the state when necessary.   This is the bargain, VOPA argued, that the state entered into when it accepted federal money under these programs. In oral argument,  the Commonwealth’s attorney, William Thro, complained that allowing one state agency to sue another “offends the dignity of the sovereign state.”  Justice Scalia snapped back, “a dignified sovereign would never accept this bargain.”

Justice Scalia went on to author the opinion in VOPA v. Stewart that gave the P & A the authority to sue the state if necessary.  It was a 6-2 opinion, solidly in favor of the P & A’s investigative authority.  The Commonwealth of Virginia relented, and produced the investigative records in short order.  Within the next year, the Commonwealth began the process of establishing the P & A as a fully independent, private non profit organization.

The P & A left state government, to become the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, on October 1, 2013, in large part because of the decision written by Antonin Scalia.

Justice Scalia died this past Saturday, February 13, 2016.

Brain Injury Services in Virginia

Did you know that in Virginia individuals who sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) are still at risk of placement in a state hospital or sent out of state for rehabilitation? Many end up in our legal system or on the streets.  Children reside in nursing homes.

Advocates for improved brain injury supports gathered today at the legislature to seek better services, through better funding, from the upcoming budget.   That additional funding is critical.

During 2015, the disAbility Law Center of Virginia (dLCV) studied Virginia’s system and identified serious deficiencies in our TBI system of care.  You can find a short summary of that study on our website at:

http://dlcv.org/publications/tbi-report

“Snapshot: State of Services for Virginians with TBI (2015)” brings into focus the gross failure of Virginia to meet the needs of the ever expanding brain-injury population.  For example, the CDC estimates that there are likely 166,525 Virginians currently living with long term disabilities resulting from a TBI, many of whom are veterans. In contrast, in 2014, only 4000 individuals with TBI received community based services.

In response to our study, Secretary William Hazel, Health and Human Resources, stated, “the Governor understands the importance of support for consumers with Brain Injuries and their families.”  We had hoped for a more substantive response.

Virginia’s current system of care relies on institutionalization and out of state placements for most, almost guaranteeing poor long term outcomes.  Moreover, a segregation-oriented system of services is clearly out of sync with the Olmstead requirements.   Virginia is at risk for a finding that is it violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Maybe then, we will see a serious response to this underfunded system of care.

More on mental health courts

After our blog a few days ago, one of our readers questioned whether “mental health courts” are really a good idea.  If our overall goal as a disability movement is full inclusion, this reader asked, isn’t creating a “special” court moving us in the wrong direction?

There are many problems with the concept of a “mental health court.”  Creating a separate justice system for people with mental illness is of concern for a number of reasons.  A mental health court could actually result in fewer overall resources available in the community.  To be effective, the court requires intensive supports, which are usually taken away from community services.  In some parts of the country, mental health resources are so limited that the only way to get critical services is to get arrested.  Further, depending on how the court is operated, an individual may be required to give up his rights to due process of law.  It is far from a perfect solution.

Mental health courts do address the crisis created when people with serious mental illness encounter the criminal justice system.  There is little disagreement that the criminal justice system is poorly equipped to respond to most mental health needs of inmates.  Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle reportedly claimed that inmates with mental illness in his jail have a 100% recidivism rate.   Regional and local jails all over Virginia beg for alternative ways to provide mental health treatment, believing that they have become the state’s largest mental health hospitals by default.  A study by the Urban Institute claims that 64 % of jail inmates have a serious mental illness, while Virginia’s State Inspector General found that the Commonwealth’s local and regional jails housed more than 6000 persons with mental illness in 2013 alone.

Mental health courts are a tool to divert some small number of those thousands away from jails and into treatment, with better prospects for success.  In essence, mental health courts would serve as a tiny bandage on a badly bleeding mental health system.  It is clear that we need to do something in Virginia.  Even the highly inadequate tool of mental health courts seems out of our reach.