The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) has adopted new Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) rules and policies governing the administration of the Ohio Works First (OWF) cash assistance program, Food Stamps, and other public assistance programs for low-income Ohioans. These new rules and policies apply both to ODJFS and the county Departments of Job and Family Services that actually administer the programs.
These ADA rules and policies address longstanding problems regarding the treatment of persons with disabilities who seek or receive public assistance. Many local welfare departments have purged persons with disabilities from the OWF rolls or prevented them from obtaining or even applying for benefits through various means, including draconian and unreasonable application of work-related requirements, application barriers, inadequate disability screenings and assessments, and failure to reasonably accommodate applicants’ and recipients’ disabilities. These actions—in violation of the ADA—were driven in large part by pressure from the state and federal governments for the counties to raise their reported “work participation rates” to avoid federal penalties. It was much easier for the counties to improve their work participation rates by cutting people from the rolls instead of providing appropriate services and work assignments with disabilities.
The Ohio legal aid programs, led by the Ohio Poverty Law Center (OPLC), asked to meet with officers and representatives of ODJFS to discuss these problems and try to negotiate a solution that would protect persons with disabilities and comply with the ADA. After more than six months of discussions—including extensive legal research and drafting proposals—the low-income advocates and ODJFS agreed to implement a set of comprehensive ADA rules, policies, form and notices to improve compliance with the ADA and state disability discrimination laws. The new rules were published for public comment and approved by the legislative Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (JCARR), and they will become law on October 1, 2014.
The new ADA rules and policies address a number of key areas, including but not limited to: screening for disabilities; employability appraisals and assessments; self-sufficiency contracts; reasonable accommodations of persons with disabilities (including the enumeration of specific examples); hardship extensions of the OWF time limits; and training requirements for county agency staff. They also address certain common misconceptions, such as the tendency of caseworkers to confuse the very different legal definitions of “disability” under the ADA and Social Security Act and to underestimate the broad scope of permissible reasonable accommodations. In addition, county departments are required to adopt (and file with ODJFS) detailed ADA county compliance plans. If fully implemented and enforced, the new ODJFS ADA rules and the mandatory county ADA compliance plan should benefit persons with disabilities seeking public assistance by: (1) ensuring that persons with disabilities are given more appropriate services and work assignments so that they can attain greater economic self-sufficiency; and (2) ending or reducing the practice of sanctioning public assistance recipients for failing to comply with inappropriate or impossible work assignments that do not take account of their disabilities.
OPLC and the Ohio legal aid programs will monitor the implementation of the new ADA rules and policies. In the meantime, anyone with questions regarding the new ADA rule and policies should feel free to contact attorney Michael Smalz of the Ohio Poverty Law Center at (614) 221-7201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.