It was a sweltering, suffocating day—some fainted from the heat—but it was far from a typical summer day 20 years ago on the south lawn of the White House.
Thousands of people, including Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) leadership, had gathered to witness then-President George H.W. Bush sign the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990, and hail it as “the most important civil rights legislation in the last century.”
The law that Congress had passed May 26, 1990, prohibited discriminating against persons with disabilities in regard to employment, public services, public transportation, public accommodations and telecommunication services. It required employers to make a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability unless it posed an undue hardship on the employer.
At the signing ceremony, Bush noted that the new law affecting 43 million Americans—the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities—was “powerful in its simplicity.”
Susan R. Meisinger, SPHR, SHRM’s then-vice president of government affairs and later CEO and president, was among the throng that historic day. She and other SHRM representatives had contributed their HR expertise to influence how the ADA and its eventual regulations were crafted.
“The business community worked hard to ensure that the law was capable of being administered if enacted,” Meisinger said in a recent interview.
It wasn’t perfect, she notes in a recent column in Human Resource Executive Online—the bill didn’t include everything the business community wanted in it—but it was legislation that was overdue.
“While the law wasn't enacted without some challenges, I think it was a good example of what’s possible when people of good will actually sit down and try to resolve differences,” Meisinger said.
SHRM’s involvement has not waned over the two decades.
“For 20 years, SHRM has been at the forefront of advocating for people with disabilities in the workplace,” SHRM President and CEO Laurence G. O’Neil said.
“SHRM was an important and influential voice in creating the original ADA in 1990 and has continued to lead efforts to improve the law, as recently as 2008 with the passage of the ADA Amendments Act,” he said.
Recently, O’Neil joined other national leaders in signing an ADA National Network Centers proclamation, reaffirming SHRM’s support for the ADA and ensuring the full benefits of its intent.
Michael J. Lotito, SPHR, who in 1990 was chairman of the now-defunct SHRM Legislative Affairs Committee, speaks with pride today about SHRM’s role at the time, which included appearances at Senate and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hearings.
The ADA is not just an employment statute, Lotito said in a recent interview, “but a true integration statute.
“It was a statement of a completely different philosophy … that no other industrialized nation in the world had attempted to do.” It called for a fundamental change in the attitude of HR and the business community toward people with disabilities, pointed out Lotito, a partner at Jackson Lewis LLP then and now.
“With Sue’s leadership, the Society had stepped up big time in being a real influencer on all matters that affected the workplace. The HR understanding, the HR guidance, was absolutely essential,” he said.
For SHRM, “the issue was how we constructively engage in dialogue in order to try to influence the legislation to help achieve its objectives and at the same time try to make it understandable to the HR community and the employer community in general,” he said.
“We recognized that this was going to be a very, very big deal,” because at its core the ADA was “an attempt to change people’s attitudes” toward those with disabilities.
“It just seemed to Sue and me a natural extension of the work we were doing. … SHRM had to be intimately involved in the way it was going to be rolled out.”
Lotito’s role included appearing at EEOC field hearings, where he urged the agency to include detailed guidance in the proposed regulations and to use focus groups made up of people who will use the regulations on a daily basis in order to test the proposed regulations.
“On a day-to-day basis it’s the HR person who gets these telephone calls: ‘What do I do?’ ‘How do I handle it?’ ‘What if [the person] can’t read the application form?’ ‘What if they can’t get into the building; do I have to build a ramp?’ ” and similar concerns, Lotito said. “It’s HR that gets all of these questions.”
SHRM’s education efforts included columns Meisinger wrote for HR News, speaking engagements around the country, and an expanded legal briefing sent to SHRM members that summarized the main provisions of the law.
Working on the ADA was a proud moment in SHRM’s history, Lotito said.
“Not only did we recognize the importance [of the ADA], not only were we players in trying to influence it, not only did we see it through with respect to the legislative process, we also helped with its implementation … through outreaches … to truly educate HR and the business community as to the importance of the statute” and alleviate concerns in the employer community.
The legislation did not become effective until two years after passage. SHRM helped prepare the business community about compliance, according to Lotito, who co-authored The Americans with Disabilities Act: Making the ADA Work for You (Milt Wright & Assoc., 1992). In addition, he spoke around the country to educate HR professionals about the law before it took effect.
It was during those two years that SHRM worked closely with Chris Bell, whom Lotito described as “the EEOC point person in trying to craft the regulations that would implement so many of the provisions of the statute.”
Bell started at the EEOC in 1987 as special assistant to then-EEOC Commissioner Evan J. Kemp Jr. and worked with Kemp to develop ADA employment provisions during the legislative process.
Kemp named Bell acting associate legal counsel for ADA services for the ADA after the legislation was enacted. It was while spearheading the EEOC’s development of ADA employment regulations and a technical assistance manual and speaking around the country that Bell came into contact with SHRM.
SHRM had been involved in the early stages of ADA legislation—as were many groups— but its most important role was after the law was enacted, he said.
“SHRM brought reality of the workplace to the table,” observed Bell, who called SHRM “the key explainer” about what the EEOC’s employment provisions and technical assistance manual would mean in the real world of policies, processes, procedures and compliance.
“That’s where SHRM was in a unique position … to translate the law into the HR system,” he said.
Bell was among those who attended the 1990 signing ceremony.
“It was just such an overwhelming and exciting day to finally see the actual law—the actual ADA—become a reality” after more than four years of work, recalled Bell. The EEOC lauded his contributions during a July 22, 2010, anniversary celebration.
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.
Has the Americans with Disabilities Act Made a Difference? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 9, 2010