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NewsOct 25, 2021

David D’Arcangelo advocates for the importance of employment for people with disabilities

A staunch advocate and leader, D’Arcangelo inaugurated Lesley’s 2021-22 Thought Leadership Series

Video: Oct. 21 virtual lecture with Commissioner David D'Arcangelo

Massachusetts Commission for the Blind Commissioner David D’Arcangelo kicked off the 2021-22 Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University with a virtual lecture titled, “A Quest for Independence & Inclusion: Why Employment Matters for People with Disabilities in Massachusetts.”

President Janet L. Steinmayer introduced D’Arcangelo, noting that it was not his first visit to Lesley; he previously served as a member of the Advisory Council of Lesley’s Threshold Program for students with learning differences and spoke at Threshold graduation in 2017.

In his talk, D’Arcangelo focused on the complex obstacles that people with disabilities face in finding fulfilling work, including the discrimination they face in the workforce and the challenges that come with the abrupt loss of government benefits that taking a job often incurs.

“These are long-standing, very profound challenges that we’re facing, trying to get people with disabilities employed.”

D’Arcangelo, who is legally blind and has a daughter on the autism spectrum, brought an unmistakable personal passion to the discussion.

David D'Arcangelo at the 2017 Threshold graduation
David D'Arcangelo speaking at the graduation for Lesley's Threshold Program in 2017.

Employment, he explained, is an essential part of personal identity. When we first meet someone, he pointed out, we ask them what they do for work.

“If you’re a person with a disability who hasn’t been in the workforce for years, you’re going to start telling me about your disability,” he said. “And while that’s fine, that just goes to show that it goes to the identity of a person. We believe that work brings dignity, self-determination, and independence.”

He gave the audience a brief overview of the agency he heads. The Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) is one of the oldest and most established human service agencies in the nation, providing access to employment opportunities and social rehabilitation for people who are visually impaired or blind.

“We were established in 1906,” he explained. “One of the first commissioners was Helen Keller. So I have big shoes to fill.”

Before taking the helm of the MCB in 2018, D’Arcangelo was director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability and was a former chair of the Commission for the Blind Rehabilitation Council. In 2020, he was appointed to serve on the National Council on Disability, an independent agency that advises the U.S. President and Congress on disability policies, programs and practices.

Partnerships with educational institutions like Lesley, the Perkins School for the Blind, the Carroll Center for the Blind, and the larger disability community in Massachusetts are crucial to MCB’s success, he explained.

Lack of employment for people with disabilities is a ‘national crisis’

D’Arcangelo discussed a common obstacle for many people with disabilities who pursue work—once they keep a job for more than 18 months, he explained, they often lose access to significant public benefits including health care, housing, food, and fuel assistance.

“There’s something like 54 different programs that people with disabilities can automatically qualify for and get. Once you become reliant on that, to then go out and get a $15 entry level job at Walmart or some other place is to upset that applecart of all of these other services—it’s a major dilemma.”

He clarified that it was understandable that many people with disabilities make the decision not to pursue employment.

“People need housing, people need health care, people need cash to survive… But what it does is it creates a benefit cycle that people can become dependent upon. One of the things we’re trying to solve for is how can we get people with disabilities to be able to work…but still be able to live and survive, which is what these safety net benefits provide. It’s a real conundrum. “

In addition to a much higher unemployment rate among people with disabilities, he points out,  nearly 60 percent of all working-age people with disabilities are not in the labor force at all.

“This is a national crisis. These are our sons and daughters, our neighbors, our friends, that we’re inhibiting from being independent and self-determined and dignified by taking part in a career, contributing to society, earning their own wage. And again, I don’t fault these people for making that decision. Because they’re given a choice of, ‘Do you want to take the benefit, or do you want to work?’ Because it’s very difficult to do both.”

D’Arcangelo pointed out that Massachusetts has a proud history of advocacy for people with disabilities. Massachusetts non-discrimination law, the first in the country, predates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“...The public perception that blind people can’t do this, or people in wheelchairs can’t do that, or people with autism can’t do this or that—we’re trying to break those barriers down. Because I’m going to tell you right now—give me a good reasonable accommodation and people with disabilities can do just about any job.”
David D'Arcangelo, Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind

Unfortunately, D’Arcangelo observed, discrimination still exists and people with disabilities are among the most discriminated against, particularly when it comes to employment. Failure to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities is a major obstacle, he pointed out.

“As is the public perception that blind people can’t do this, or people in wheelchairs can’t do that, or people with autism can’t do this or that. We’re trying to break those barriers down. Because I’m going to tell you right now—give me a good reasonable accommodation and people with disabilities can do just about any job.”

He emphasized the importance not only of hiring people with disabilities but also giving them opportunities for growth and promotion at work through internships, mentoring, and more. People with disabilities, he asserted, bring with them natural problem-solving abilities that makes them an asset to many organizations.

“I really believe that it’s time to start using disability as a qualification,” he said.

A flood of audience questions addressed issues from the challenges of providing adequate transportation options for people with disabilities, helping prospective employers get assistive technology and adaptive equipment, and examples of employers with great track records of employing people with disabilities.

D’Arcangelo concluded on an optimistic note that echoed his approach towards the personal challenges he’s faced.

“I'm not interested in what you can’t do. I’m interested in what you can do and focusing on that…Let’s get more people into the labor force. Let’s get more people employed. We believe it brings dignity, independence, self-determination, and improves the human condition. That’s why I get up every day.”