Congressman Hopes Disability Internship Program Outlives His Tenure
WASHINGTON — As U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper prepares to leave Congress, he has high hopes the internship program he created for individuals with intellectual disabilities will grow and lead to more alumni getting hired.
Helping those with disabilities has been a priority for the Mississippi Republican since his election to the House in 2008. He has sponsored multiple pieces of legislation to help people with disabilities transition into adulthood, including his Transition toward Excellence, Achievement and Mobility, or TEAM, Act in 2013, which stalled in committee.
Harper, who is retiring after this term, co-sponsored earlier this year the Disability Integration Act, which would prohibit states and insurance providers from denying people with disabilities community-based services.
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His advocacy is inspired by his 28-year-old son Livingston, who has fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition linked to developmental and intellectual disabilities, often in males.
The Harpers knew something was wrong with their son, but diagnoses varied until he was 4, when doctors finally discovered he had fragile X.
In an interview with Mississippi College’s alumni publication, Harper and his wife, Sidney, said Livingston was slow to learn basic skills and cried constantly. They described days filled with therapy sessions and how they couldn’t comfort their child when he didn’t want to be touched or held.
“It maybe wasn’t the journey we thought we would be on, but it’s been a great journey,” the congressman said.
Livingston has since graduated from Mississippi State University and works at a restaurant back home.
Before coming to Congress, Harper would recruit students from the special education department at Pearl High School to work in his law office in Brandon, outside of Jackson, the state capital.
He has expanded the practice on the Hill, where he currently chairs the House Administration Committee.
“I believe that God directs our paths. I’m on the committee for House Administration from the very beginning, which oversees and is responsible for the overall intern program,” Harper said.
He coordinates the Congressional Internship Program for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities with the Mason Learning Into Future Environments, or LIFE, program at George Mason University.
“Depending on what kind of tasks the office has in mind, we’ll do our best to assign appropriate students,” said Andrew Hahn, an employment coordinator at Mason LIFE, which offers a four-year non-degree program to students with intellectual disabilities.
Three of Rep. Rodney Davis’ interns have come through the program. Their tasks are based on what they’re most comfortable with.
“My team will work with them on things like folding letters, then working up to having them work the letter-folding machine,” the Illinois Republican said. “If they’re willing to work the phones, we’ll have them answer the phones and talk to our constituents.”
Harper has already made good on his goal of seeing more program alumni hired full time.
“One of my first meetings was, ‘You find me the best graduate we’ve had recently at George Mason University,’ and we hired him because we had the slot, we had the money in the budget,” he said. Harper’s office asked that the staffer not be publicly identified.
“This person started in March, I believe, and is doing incredible work and is part of the team, and he’s just been warmly received,” Harper said. “He’s working hard, doing full-time work, getting full-time pay and it’s changed his life.”
Similarly, South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott hired Patrick Farrell, another alumnus of the program, to work two days a week.
“My favorite thing to do is the meet and greet,” Farrell said. “Set up the water, tea, sodas, potato chips.”
Jennifer DeCasper, Scott’s chief of staff, said Farrell is integral to the office and often catches errors when entering constituent information that others wouldn’t.
“He’s the best staff assistant, by far,” she said.
Scott said he appreciates Farrell’s straightforwardness and honesty.
“He’s unambiguous, and sometimes we here on the Hill … always expect there’s more to the story,” Scott said. “Patrick’s depth of character and his willingness to be blunt with no ulterior motives is refreshing.”
Other members who have taken part in the program are Administration Committee ranking Democrat Robert A. Brady of Pennsylvania, Georgia Republican Rep. Rob Woodall and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
While he has been pleased with the bipartisan buy-in, Harper said support of such internship programs goes hand in hand with conservative values.
“It is a money-saver for the system,” he said. “Because it allows people to stand on their own two feet and not be dependent on the government, which certainly is a strong goal.”
Harper’s program is not the only way for people with intellectual disabilities to work on the Hill.
Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey also has a fellowship for people with disabilities. Liz Weintraub, a current fellow, works with the Senate Aging Committee.
“I had a real clear interest seeing what it is like to work here on the Hill and not just doing advocacy,” she said.
As part of her work on the committee, Weintraub has worked with Casey on matters related to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities and helped the senator craft legislation to include protections for people with disabilities from sexual assault.
“There’s a saying that we have in the self-advocacy movement. It’s ‘nothing about us without us,'” Weintraub said. “You can’t do this work without us. And I don’t mean me specifically, but I mean everyone.”
Weintraub is also trying to help other offices in both chambers hire people with disabilities full time.
Kate Mevis, staff director for Casey on Senate Aging, said her boss has made disability issues a central focus during his time in the Senate and the idea of having a fellow came after a hearing on work and disability.
“The senator said we are doing all this great work,” Mevis recalled. “We should be doing work ourselves.”
In his last year in Congress, Harper said he hopes to allow students with developmental disabilities to come to the Hill on a rotating basis and to hire people from across the country into full-time jobs.
“As part of that, they’ve got to have a place to live outside of their parents’ homes,” he said.
DeCasper from Scott’s office said she is speaking to colleagues about promoting the program.
“I am consistently bugging other offices about diversity in general, but I think the problem is that it’s just not been really well-exposed,” she said. “Our job right now is to expose it to other offices.”
Mason LIFE’s Hahn said the program has firm enough roots to last after Harper leaves.
“In some ways, there might even be a full position or a shared position between (the) U.S. House and George Mason,” he said. “We have the necessary supports in place.”
Harper vowed to make sure the program continues after he leaves.
“When you do something that’s good and helps so many people, this should never be dependent upon one individual, and so it’s not,” he said.
“I’m confident that it will continue, and if it doesn’t, I’ll come back,” he said.
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