Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS): A Better Way Helps Everyone Pursue the American Dream

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. As the parent of a son, 27-year-old Livingston, who has an intellectual disability known as Fragile X syndrome, I have by necessity and choice become an avid advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities in the American workforce.

One of my first efforts after beginning service in the House of Representatives was to look into the inclusion of college-age young people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities in Capitol Hill internships. We partnered with the Committee on House Administration and George Mason University’s Mason Life Program to bring all of their students to work in many House and Senate offices as interns, and have done so for the past seven years. The consensus among participating offices has been that these interns have had as profound an impact on the members and their staff, as the experience has had on the interns themselves.

With a little extra effort, customized training, attentiveness to access issues and a simple awareness that workers with disabilities bring an entirely different set of tools, talents and innovations to the workplace—we can change lives and decrease dependency on public assistance programs.

For many years the classic employment model for people with disabilities was to segregate these wonderful human beings into sheltered workshops where they were often legally paid a subminimum wage as low as pennies an hour and in actuality subsisted on Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. This unfortunate practice applied to those with physical as well as cognitive disabilities.

With passage of important legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce has dramatically improved. Sheltered workshops, while some still exist, are widely viewed as an antiquated system that will eventually fade into history.

But there is still work to be done in the policy arena. I have introduced H.R. 188, the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act (TIME Act), which now has 73 cosponsors. This legislation would repeal the 1938 provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act which allows those with disabilities to be paid subminimum wages. I welcome your support.

And my son Livingston? He finished a special program for students with intellectual disabilities at Mississippi State University where he experienced the life of a college student and is currently employed in a local café near our hometown where I am certain he knows more people than I do.

We still have challenges, but at the end of the day, no matter your age, race or background, you should be able to pursue your own unique version of the American Dream. House Republicans are offering a Better Way – a way of opportunity in which you are defined by your potential, and I am committed to continuing to work to open opportunities for all people living with disabilities.