WebABLE.TV is pleased to introduce the second program in the video series, “Champions of Accessibility”, which features those pioneers, thought leaders and professionals who have exhibited exemplary dedication to the community of people with disabilities in the field of accessibility and assistive technology. Andy Imparato, Executive Director of Disability Rights, California (DRC), is featured as a Champion of Accessibility for this second program.
Hi, I'm Dave Gardy for WebAble TV from our studios here near Washington, DC for this special presentation on WebAble TV, Champions of Accessibility, and today's champion of accessibility is Andy Imparato, who is the Executive Director of Disability Rights California. He'll be interviewed by Mike Paciello from webable.com. I'm gonna turn it over to Mike now. Mike?
Hey Dave, thanks very much. And thanks to all to being here with us for our Champions of Accessibility series. We have a special guest with us, a good friend, a long-time advocate for people with disabilities, Andy Imparato. Andy, welcome to our show today.
Thanks, Mike. It's great to be here.
Yeah, thank you. Andy, I think we were talking just before the show started, the first time you and I met was several years ago. Dave Gardy actually introduced us. It seemed like we were in a hotel or at an event and you were, I think at that time, with AAPD. I was just wondering how have things, and that's gotta be at least 10 years ago, how have things been going and what have you been doing since then?
Yeah, so thank you. I was at the American Association of People with Disabilities from 1999, the end of the Clinton administration, until 2010, the first term of Obama, and I left there to go back to work for Senator Harkin, who had been my first boss when I came to Washington in '93. When Senator Kennedy passed, he became the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and I was his disability policy director there for two years. And then, when he announced his retirement, I ended up getting hired to lead the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, which is a network of federally-funded centers for excellence in developmental disabilities. I was there for six years. And then, my grown children were both in California where I grew up, so my wife and I were motivated to try to come back to California and I was lucky to find this job at Disability Rights California, and I've been here since February of last year.
Yeah, it's a real positive series of changes that you've gone over this journey, so to speak. And I think I recently saw a post of yours. Was it one of your sons graduated?
Yeah, so my younger son, like a lot of young people, graduated without having to be able to have a real ceremony. He graduated in May of last year. And he's now kind of launching his career as a teacher. He's doing it virtually. But yeah, so both my kids are now out of college and it feels good to be, to have that behind us.
Yeah. Congratulations on that. I recently saw a list of internationally recognized accessibility disability influencers, and I was surprised, frankly speaking, that your name wasn't on that list. Does that bother you? Does it affect you at all that possibly people don't know who you are with your long history in disability advocacy and rights?
Well, Mike, you're kind to say that. I try not to worry too much about stuff like that. I kind of have viewed myself as a soldier in a movement and I try to go places where I can have an impact, but I try not to have it be about me and more about the movement. One of the things that I appreciate, and particularly in the last 10 years, I just got a notice on Twitter that I guess today's my 12-year anniversary on Twitter, but I feel like these social media platforms really create an opportunity for people to be influencers from a very young age and from wherever they are. And they don't have to have kind of the informateur of a particular job or title in order to be an influencer. And that feels healthy to me. I mean, I feel like it's impossible for any one person to represent the depth and breadth of the disability movement globally. To have an opportunity for lots of people to get their voices out there, to me, is really positive.
Yeah, I really like that, Andy. And I've always been one that feels that empowering others, giving other people voice, is perhaps one of the best means by which we can make a change and make a difference and champion the rights as it were of people with disabilities. I really appreciate your point there.
Yeah, and I will say, a lot of what I do on Twitter is just amplifying other people's voices. That's one of the things I like. It's very easy to kind of use social media to lift other people up. And that's what I end up doing, most of my posts are doing that.
Yeah, exactly. Very good. Let's talk a little bit more about DRC, Disability Rights California. Tell us a little bit more about its mission specifically and how the organization has fared in spite of, for example, this last 14, 15 months of the pandemic.
Yeah, so we are one of 57 federally-funded protection and advocacy agencies for people with disabilities. We provide free legal services for people with all types of disabilities across the state of California. And the funding for our agencies, the federal funding, is based on the size of your state. Because of the size of California, we have the largest protection and advocacy agency in the country. We have about 290 staff, about $34 million budget, 26 offices across the state. And really the mission is to advocate for the civil rights of people with disabilities, connect them to services, do policy advocacy. And it's really to try to advance the goals of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act or the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Accessibility is a big part of our advocacy and trying to create an inclusive economy. We just hosted a summit that we took the president's theme of building back better and really focused on what can we do in California to create a truly inclusive economy there where people with disabilities are thriving in the labor force, including people with significant disabilities who need significant support in order to be able to thrive. And we were delighted that our governor came and spoke and they put down a marker that he wanted California to be the most inclusive economy in the world. We feel like we've got marching orders coming out of that to really define what that looks like and really learn lessons from the pandemic to try to help more people participate in the economy in a way that works for them. And for some people, that means doing it from home and not having to commute to an office every day.
Yeah, we have a lot going on. It's a big organization. The pandemic, like so many organizations, had a huge impact on our business model. We went very quickly from primarily being in offices to working from home. And we're learning a lot. We learned a lot in the last year and a half. We don't think that our business model is gonna be exactly the same as it was before. We've got a lot of folks wanting to do either permanent working from home or hybrid models where we have kind of hoteling in our offices. And we're really trying to rethink, when we have an office, how do we wanna use it and how much space do we really need? Again, I don't think we're unique in that regard, but it's definitely been an eye-opener for us in terms of how much we can do without using an office.
The irony, Andy, is that what you're talking about in terms of the business, the business model, and some of the changes that you have to make, and in light of, functionally, living in a digital society, in a digital economy, really isn't any different for the disabilities community as it is for individuals without disabilities. I haven't heard anything that you have said yet that I think, all industries are all communities, regardless of what they're built upon or what their business is or what their mission is. It is really different where we're all finally have kind of, in a very ironic way, COVID has decided to turn on that digital economy, digital society switch so that everybody realizes, okay, this is a new way of living. In fact, everything that's in place has been in place for at least a decade, if not more. It's interesting.
Yeah. One thing I try to be careful about, though, is, as you know, Mike, the disability community is so diverse and there are people who, because of the nature of their disability or just the way they work, they are gonna do better when they are around colleagues and they're gonna have all of the kind of natural social interactions and kind of human capital that happens when you're in a place together. I think sometimes we assume that working from home is unequivocally positive for people with disabilities, but for some folks, it really ends up being isolating and it can actually make it harder for them to be successful at work. I just think it's important to recognize that community is not uniform in terms of how we think about working from home.
Yeah, thank you. That's a great point to make. Setting COVID and the pandemic aside, what do you see as the big challenges maybe right now, and then in the future, for people with disabilities as a whole?
Yeah, I think, when I was working for Senator Harkin the second time, he was very focused on employment and his concern was that we didn't have any evidence after decades of the Americans with Disabilities Act that people with disabilities were participating in the labor force at a greater rate than we were when they passed the law. And he's still working on that issue in his retirement. We've been doing these Harkin summits where we bring together people from around the world to collaborate around opening up the labor force for people with disabilities. But I feel like employment is a really good indicator of whether all of our other systems are working. If the education system, K through 12 and higher education, the healthcare system, the transportation system, the housing system, if all of these other systems are working well for people with disabilities, then we are gonna show up in bigger numbers in the labor force. I would say kind of opening up the economy, letting people with disabilities show what they can do in the labor force, helping people have careers, and having a disability benefits system that supports people to move in and out of the labor force as they're able to is a big, big challenge for us moving forward. And it's a good bipartisan issue. Democrats and Republicans care about labor force participation for people with disabilities. It's also about good jobs, trying to make sure that people are not paid less than minimum wage, that they're not in segregated settings, and that they're able to take advantage of the same economy that everybody else is participating in.
Yeah, very good point. And I wonder, Andy, you probably have a little bit of a better idea, even though, in fact, actually one of the big research organizations here that's funded by, I think, the Department of Education around labor statistics is right up here in UNH, where I am, in my backyard, I get their reports every month. Has the needle moved at all in terms of unemployment for people with disabilities? And where does it stand right now?
Well, it's not good right now. The pandemic knocked about a million people out of the labor force, a million people with disabilities, out of the labor force. About that same number was knocked out of the labor force in 2008 when we had the economic downturn. I'm hoping we can learn the lessons from 2008 and the aftermath because it was not, it took a long time for people with disabilities to come back into the labor force after the 2008 downturn. And part of that was because we weren't focused as a country on getting people back into the labor force, and that figure of a million people leaving the labor force was not a well-known figure. We definitely had, people with disabilities tend to be among the first laid off. We tend to be on the margins of the economy. We need to bring people back into the labor force. And again, to the extent that we've learned lessons about how to accommodate people at work, let's apply those lessons so that way more people with disabilities have opportunities to work, even if they're not able to work full time. The labor force participation numbers, and I know the center you were talking about, , Andrew Hausfeld runs that center and he's been a phenomenal colleagues for many years. But to show up in labor force participation numbers, that means that you're either actively looking for a job or you have some earnings. Any earnings at all, you show up in the labor force. And then, even with that definition, more than two thirds of working age people with disabilities are not in the labor force. I just feel like we've got a long way to go to really embrace the vision of the Americans with Disabilities Act and really open the doors to competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities.
Excellent point. But boy, those are, that's real heart-hitting, not hard, heart-hitting, when you think about that many folks with disabilities out of the employment and out of the labor force. I hope that this interview will help to maybe open up some eyes and some ears to engage in more. I know I've seen a lot of efforts at PEAT and Disability:IN, and some of those organizations that are kind of pushing a stronger model for employment, so we'll see how that goes. Thanks. Last question, Andy. This is our Champions of Accessibility program and I wonder how you view your own role and your responsibility first to the community of people with disabilities, but also to the constituencies that serve them.
Yeah, I think sometimes when we have a conversation around accessibility and how to be a champion, there's a strong focus on kind of technology accessibility and making sure that things are screen reader compatible, or that we have captioning on video content, audio description, things like that. And all of that stuff is critically important. But I also think it's important to think about accessibility holistically. And one of the things that I learned from working with the University Centers for Excellence is we don't often, in our conversations about accessibility, think enough about using plain language so that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, people who are limited in English proficient, people who can't read, are able to access the content. And I just feel like that's not as easy to measure. The World Wide Web Consortium is not necessarily gonna be able to come up with great standards for measuring whether something is plain language, 'cause it's not just about the reading level, but I think that that's an area of accessibility that affects so many people in so many different situations that it deserves more attention. And I'm hopeful as you all kind of continue in your series, you can really explore that. How do we get the whole space, the whole disability space, and then the economy more broadly, to embrace the idea that there's always a simpler way to communicate information, and that simplicity itself is a form of accessibility. And I feel like, I'll just give a quick example, one of my colleagues at AUCD was a woman named Liz Weintraub, she has a video series she does called Tuesdays with Liz where she talks about policy, she has an intellectual disability herself, and she tries to keep the conversation on a level where people with intellectual disabilities can understand it. Well, Liz was invited by Senator Feinstein to testify in the Judge Kavanaugh confirmation hearing. She was sitting at a table with witnesses that included the former Solicitor General of the United States, and I sat through the whole hearing, there were 10 witnesses, I can tell you, Liz's testimony got more attention from the five Democratic senators and the five Republican senators who were in the room at that time than any other witness. She didn't use big words, she didn't try to talk like a lawyer, but she explained that when he was a judge on the DC circuit, he told the District of Columbia that they could make decisions about healthcare for women with intellectual disabilities without consulting them. And she was so insulted by that decision that it motivated her to testify. And I really do believe her testimony had a huge impact on the senators that heard it.
Yeah, that's interesting. And let me tell you, you can count me on that bandwagon. I've been an advocate of plain language for, boy, for almost as long as I think it's at least entered into my own side of the technology field and usability and user experience. And very quickly we learned how important, in fact, when we did the 508 committees several years ago, that became one of the key attributes of making sure that what we wrote and how it was projected included plain language. And thank goodness that the access board, David Capozzi, took that up as, again, one of their themes for the onboarding of the new version of 508 that exists today. Andy, I wish we could spend some more time together. I know sooner or later we'll be able to meet again. It'll be great for me to come out and see you in California, but I really wanna thank you for being a guest today on our Champions of Accessibility program and best of luck to you at the DRC.
Thank you very much. It was my pleasure.
Thanks, Dave, I'm gonna turn it back over to you.
Thank you, Mike. And thank you also, Andy. An excellent presentation there. Again, we've been speaking with Andy Imparato, who is the Executive Director of Disability Rights California, for another Champions of Accessibility series. I'm Dave Gardy for WebAble Tv from our studios here near Washington, DC. Thanks for joining us.