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After 30 years, ADA challenges have been met and opportunities revealed

Inclusion and Diversity|Talent|Integrated Wellbeing

September 24, 2020

While the ADA removes barriers and provides equality, employers can take it a step further to empower those with disabilities.

2020 has flashed a bright light on the importance of civil rights, tolerance and flexibility for everyone in our communities. This summer marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark civil rights bill requiring reasonable accommodations for persons who currently have a disability or have had one in their past.

We take for granted many of the changes ushered in by the ADA that benefit people beyond those with disabilities. For example, curb cuts benefit people who use assistive walking devices, as well as people pushing baby strollers and riding bicycles. Closed captioning helps the hearing impaired, along with people who have difficulty understanding different accents or languages. Robotics, artificial intelligences and touch-and-talk communication technology have demonstrably changed the way we live, work and communicate.

Even during the current novel coronavirus pandemic, no-touch dispensers and doors have helped avoid the transmission of disease — another positive result of the ADA. Yet, during this pandemic, employers have been particularly challenged to accommodate employees who are vulnerable or at-risk. Some high-risk employees who cannot work remotely or be offered low-risk settings in the workplace may only be able to return to work after a vaccine is in widespread use. The result is seen in employment numbers: Pandemic-related job losses showed 18.9% of Americans with disabilities were unemployed as of April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now compare that number to 14.3% of the general population.

The intent of the ADA was to remove barriers of all types and provide equal access to employment, education, health care, recreation, transportation, housing and telecommunications by offering hope and protection from discrimination. And though this regulation has changed our physical landscape for the better (including for those without disabilities), three decades later there is still much work to be done to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities.

For example, people with disabilities frequently are on the receiving end of conscious and unconscious bias. Many employers forget that the ADA begins early, during the hiring process, not just when an event occurs. As a result, people with disabilities are less likely to be called in for an interview and more than 50% likelier to be unemployed or underemployed. Whether a person currently has a disability or had one in their past, it can be an obstacle in a hiring or promotion decision, and that directly impacts the individual’s career start or progression. Even a perceived disability can be a barrier for a person’s livelihood.

It is important to recognize that one in four people will have a physical or emotional disability some time in their life. It is also important to remember that, while some disabilities are visible to the naked eye, others are less apparent. People with a disability may have an impairment, restriction or inability to participate in an activity; however, that does not preclude them from being active members of the community, attending school, working and living independently.

We live in a richer world because of the ADA, enjoying the benefits of a diverse and inclusive community. The civil rights protected under the ADA also are consistent with fairness and morality, effectively calling each of us as individuals to be kinder, and more patient and accepting of those who are different.

As employers, the ADA also calls to us, encouraging us to do more than simply have a policy. Thirty years ago, we were given an opportunity to empower people with disabilities and give them the ability to compete and thrive in the workplace equally. We also are afforded the power to help change the perceptions, hearts and minds of our society at-large to recognize and acknowledge the value and contributions of all.

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