Greenway Conservancy move a disservice to disabled

Cutting contract is an insult to long Kennedy family commitment

WHEN I FIRST heard about the decision of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy to cut its contractual ties with the highly acclaimed employment non-profit for the disabled WORK Inc., I immediately thought of the experience of one of my closest friends while we were growing up in the ’50’s and  ’60’s. His name was Charlie Brown–and, yes, his girlfriend at the time was named Lucy.

He was born blind, went to Perkins School for the Blind through 8th grade, excelled academically at Wellesley High School, then graduated from Harvard and picked up a law degree from Northwestern Law School. But then he hit the brick wall of discrimination against the disabled. No private law firm would hire him, despite his sterling educational background. While his able-bodied friends were being snapped up by elite law firms around the country, Charlie was unemployed. At the time, there were no laws protecting the disabled against discriminatory hiring practices; the American Disabilities Act did not pass until 1990. Finally, after a long stretch of unemployment, Charlie was noticed by an official at the US Department of Labor and he was hired as a lawyer, where he remained for over 30 years. For me, it was an eye-opening experience in which I realized that those with disabilities required their own civil rights movement.

Since then, of course, laws have been enacted which provide some protections to disabled citizens seeking employment. But these laws did not prevent the disabled workers employed by WORK Inc. from losing their jobs at the Greenway Conservancy and being replaced by workers from a Kentucky-based for-profit company. During the 10-year relationship between the Conservancy and WORK Inc., there had not been one complaint filed against the workers.

In 2008, when then-CEO of the Greenway Conservancy Peter Meade  told Sen. Ted Kennedy that WORK Inc. had been selected as the maintenance contractor, Kennedy exclaimed, “My mother would love this!” Kennedy had worked hard to raise the necessary funds for the Greenway, and felt that employing disabled citizens to work there would send a strong message underscoring his family’s decades-long commitment to providing access to meaningful work to people who experience discrimination due to their disabilities.

To date, the Conservancy has not provided a convincing rationale for terminating the contract with WORK Inc., nor have they explained why they would not renew a contract with a nonprofit known for employing disabled people without a plan for alternative employment for these workers.  The entire episode suggests a leadership team devoid of common sense and decency, not to mention the political obtuseness of needlessly alienating large numbers of Bostonians who care deeply about the importance of the Greenway to our city and the significance of connecting Rose Kennedy’s concerns for the disabled to her memorial.

This incident is especially distressing because Massachusetts long has been at the forefront of advancing opportunities for people with physical, intellectual, and psychiatric disabilities. The Commonwealth established the first state department of public health in the nation in 1869.  Federal Judge Joe Tauro handed down a court decision in 1978 which transformed the lives of thousands of developmentally disabled citizens by forcing the state to provide funding for an array of community-based services, thereby spawning the creation of many social services agencies providing opportunities for previously institutionalized people to live independent, positive lives within their cities and towns and with their families. Massachusetts also was the first state in the country to establish a public agency for the deaf and hard of hearing. My friend Charlie’s education was partially subsidized by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.

WORK Inc., established in 1965, has been very much a national leader in these efforts to mainstream people with disabilities so they can enjoy decent housing, obtain good jobs, and have access to excellent health care. The organization has helped thousands of disabled people to lead productive lives​ in which they are independent, taxpaying members of the society. These jobs are not handouts; the workers are expected to maintain high standards in every way, which is why there have been no complaints about their performance in 10 years at the Greenway.

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I challenge any business in Boston to produce a better record. The Conservancy decision is an outrage and a stain on its own reputation. If the administrators of the Conservancy do not understand the damage they have done, then their board should. Let’s continue to support all our citizens who want to work, rather than undermining those who face many more burdens than the rest of us.

Phil Johnston is a former Massachusetts secretary of health and human services and former New England administrator of the US Department of Health and Human Services.