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Commission History

The Beginning: Assisting Disabled Veterans With Getting Jobs

Nationally in 1947
In the autumn of 1947 President Harry S. Truman established the President’s Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped and asked each governor to create their own committee to assist disabled veterans get jobs.

Rhode Island, 1956
On October 23rd, 1956 Governor Dennis J. Roberts created the Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped and Aging, to work with the new Bureau of Rehabilitation and Services for the Aging in the Department of Social Welfare.

In announcing this organizational meeting, Governor Roberts said “The promotion of employment opportunities for handicapped and aging is a community problem, and calls for such searching and significant action as can only be expected from the highest ranks of leading private citizens and persons proudly dedicated to the public service…within the framework of the Committee there will be a policy making body of representatives from industry, labor, insurance, medicine, and veterans’ organizations, and Area Chairmen, who will set up sub-committees in their geographic locations. A Technical Council of specialists from community agencies in the fields of rehabilitation, education, health and employment will serve in an advisory capacity to the policy-making body and area chairmen, in the operation as phase of the Committee.”

Under Chairman Harold Stanzler, the Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped setup area committees to promote the hiring of the physically disabled and conducted employer-applicant clinics during National Employment of the Physically Handicapped Week each October.

Over the years the Commission has had many names and responsibilities:

  • Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped and Aging: 1956-1959
  • Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped: 1959-1962
  • Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped: 1962-1985
  • Governor’s Commission on the Handicapped: 1985-1997
  • Governor’s Commission on Disabilities: 1997-present

The 1960s: Promoting Employment and Expanding to Include Persons with Mental Impairments

During the 1960s the Governor’s Committee was involved in promoting job opportunities for the disabled in a variety of ways. The Committee was transferred to the Department of Employment Security during the reorganization of state government social and human service entities. In 1962, The Committee was re-named the Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, dropping the reference to physical disabilities.
The Governor’s Committee pushed for legislative change in the Worker’s Compensation Second Injury Fund in 1964.
The following year, the Governor’s Committee supported the expansion of the sheltered workshop program in Rhode Island, which, like the rest of the nation, shifted its focus to include people with mental disabilities at the request of President Kennedy. The Committee was also encouraging employers to recruit workers from the Ladd School. It worked with the State Federation of Women’s Clubs to eliminate architectural barriers in building used by the disabled and elderly. Their efforts led to the enactment of a 1968 state law requiring buildings constructed and/or rented by state and local governments to be accessible.
In 1967 the Governor’s Committee established the John E. Fogarty Memorial Employer Award and a subcommittee to select the nominee. The award was presented each year in January on the anniversary of Congressman Fogarty’s death. The Committee also established a subcommittee to review essays written by high school students and presented awards to the winners of the “Ability Counts” contest. The Disabled American Veterans and the State AFL-CIO provided savings bonds and travel expenses to Washington DC for the contest winner.

The 1970s: Acquiring a Legislative Charter, Staff Support and Funding

In 1970 State Senator Rocco Quattrocchi sponsored a Legislative Charter for the RIGCEH, making it a permanent state committee. The Committee was finally able to employ a full-time staff in 1976, through a CETA-Public Service Employment Grant to promote awareness of the federal disability rights legislation, environmental barriers removal, and the employability of persons with disabilities. This grant resulted in the employment of the Committee’s first Executive Secretary.
From May 23rd-27th, 1977, the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals brought together, for the first time nationally; adults with disabilities, healthcare professionals, mental health professionals, parents of children in special education, parents of children with special health care needs, providers of services for people with developmental  disabilities, researchers, special education teachers, and vocational rehabilitation professionals. State level meetings took place the preceding year and involved, for the first time, large numbers of people with disabilities and their families, rather than just service providers in the development of ‘disability policy.’ A series of regional meetings led to a statewide conference at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus. For many adults with disabilities, and parents of children in special education or children in state institutions, it was their first meeting of large numbers of people and families ‘like themselves.’ Together with service providers, educators, and others they discussed and debated the future of disabled individuals in America and Rhode Island.
Affirmative Action Awareness—A 6 person staff providing Section 503 technical assistance to all recipients of federal contracts on the Affirmative Action Obligations [Federal] Contractors and Subcontractors for Handicapped Workers, 1977-79.
Architectural Barrier Survey—3 person staff conducting accessibility surveys of restaurants and stores and published an Accessibility Guidebook for RI, 1978-79.
Assisted the RI League of Cities and Towns in publishing their Requirements for Local Government: Accessibility for the Handicapped in 1978.
In 1979 the Committee prepared a Proposal for the Creation of the Rhode Island Commission on the Disabled and the Office for the Disabled.

The 1980s: Promoting Employment Opportunities and Civil Rights

In 1980, the Governor by Executive Order consolidated support services for the RIGCEH within the Department of Community Affairs. The RIGCEH became an autonomous division within the department. In 1980 the Environmental Barriers Subcommittee was designated by Governor J. Joseph Garrahy to develop a single, statewide 504 Transition Plan for ensuring access to all state government programs, encompassing all state agencies, departments, and universities.
In 1984 ABLE TOO…is born, establishing one of the first state- and nationwide weekly cable TV programs on and produced by people with disabilities.
The Governor’s Commission on the Handicapped was created on May 28th, 1985, replacing the Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. The bill was sponsored by Senator John Revens of Warwick.

The 1990s: Focus on Voluntary Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act

On July 26th, 1990, President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 1991 the Commission was re-organized to promote voluntary compliance with the ADA. The Governor directed the Commission to coordinate ADA compliance efforts of all state agencies. In 1992 the Commission was designated, by law, the agency with the responsibility for state government compliance with the ADA and all other state/federal laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities.
In 1994 the Commission gained two building officials as staff members. The Commission, through the ADA Coalition of RI, received funding from the Regional Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center to conduct ADA training. In 1995, the Commission expanded its ADA Technical Assistance Services to businesses, agencies, homeowners, apartment dwellers, etc. to include accessibility surveys. The mediation service was expanded beyond state agencies, to local government and private agencies, businesses, employers, and realtors/property mangers. While the Commission’s main focus was on the ADA, it continued to work on other issues, including assistive technology, confidentiality, and healthcare.
In April 1993 the Commission reviewed state services for people with disabilities and proposed a redesign of state government services and the adoption by the state of a goal that “Government funded services, for individuals with disabilities, would be designed towards a goal of self sufficiency and exiting the service delivery system, rather than long term support of individuals that fosters dependency.” The Commission recommendations were contained in its report For A Change…Putting People First, Spreading A Thin Dollar, While Providing Opportunities, Fostering Responsibility, and Integrating into the Community People with Disabilities.

The 2000s: Annual Public Forums on the Concerns of People with Disabilities and their Families

From 2000-2006 a Human Resource Investment Council grant funded staff support for the Disability Business Enterprise program. About 20 rehabilitation agencies and businesses owned by people with disabilities were certified. Initially, the law only gave a preference in the awarding of contracts to rehabilitation agencies. The Commission was successful in getting the law amended to authorize the Department of Administration to issue regulations to support the purchasing preference accorded to small businesses owned by people with disabilities. Approximately $5,000,000 of contracts has been awarded under the law.
Starting in 2001 the Commission invited state and community agencies, consumer and parent advocacy organizations to jointly sponsor a week long series of public forums on the concerns of people with disabilities and their families. Prior to 2001, the Commission’s legislation committee would host several public hearings around the state as the starting point for developing legislation for the following year. Every year since then some 20 to 30 organizations join the Commission in conducting these forums during the week of the anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These forums have led to a broader legislative agenda and highlight the fact that individuals with disabilities often need services from multiple agencies at the same time.
In 2003 the responsibility to investigate complaints of discrimination on the basis of disability, allegedly caused by physical inaccessibility of facilities and the responsibility for managing the renovation of state owned facilities (including state operated schools and colleges) to remove physical barriers was transferred to the State Building Commission.
The Commission became and continued to be the RI affiliate to the New England ADA and Accessible IT Center, providing assistance and training to businesses, public and not-for-profit agencies, realtors, and people with disabilities and their families.