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The ADA at 30: Looking Back and Ahead

Despite significant progress for U.S. workers with disabilities, many barriers remain.

A blind Harvard law student who couldn’t get a job interview with a single firm. Vietnam veterans who had lost their legs serving their country and couldn’t access buses or trains to commute to work. A polio survivor who became mobility-impaired and was denied a teaching certificate in New York City. 

The examples of discrimination against people with disabilities before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted 30 years ago “go on and on,” says Bobby Silverstein, an attorney with Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville in Washington, D.C., and a behind-the-scenes architect of the law. 

The ADA opened doors for many. In addition to making disability a protected class and giving the community legal recourse, the act bans questions related to disability on job applications, provides for greater accessibility to public buildings and transportation, and requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees and job applicants. The ADA also makes requiring medical examinations before a job offer unlawful, and limits disability-related questions and medical examinations of employees.

Still, high rates of unemployment and underemployment remain for people with disabilities, and new barriers to Web accessibility are emerging. But employers can help change that.

Barriers Everywhere

Before the ADA, many hiring managers didn’t think people with disabilities were able to work, says Chai Feldblum, an attorney with Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C., and a former commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Feldblum worked for the American Civil Liberties Union AIDS Project while the Senate and House of Representatives were crafting the ADA, and she became the lead lawyer negotiating the law.

Where People with Disabilities Work

Management, professional fields: 34.1%

Sales, offices: 22.3%

Service: 20.7%

Production, transportation, material moving: 14.5%

Natural resources, construction, maintenance: 8.4%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Feldblum and Silverstein were really the drafters of it,” says Susan Meisinger, SHRM-SCP, J.D., former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. She was vice president for government affairs at the Society when the ADA was being worked out.

Before the law was enacted, Silverstein says, the first question on job applications often was “Do you have a physical or mental disability?” This posed a major barrier not only for people with visible disabilities, but also for people with so-called hidden disabilities, such as mental-health issues, epilepsy, cancer or diabetes. 

On top of that, easy access to office buildings, stores, hospitals, factories, theaters, recreational facilities, parks, sports arenas, schools, libraries and restaurants “was not the rule, but the exception,” says Jean Ryan, president of Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York in New York City.

Additionally, service animals, such as guide dogs for people with low or no vision, were often denied access to public spaces, says Priyanka Ghosh, director of external affairs for the National Organization on Disability in New York City. “Communication in various formats, such as Braille signage for people who are visually impaired and teletype phones for people who are hard of hearing, was also not guaranteed,” she adds.

Other types of workplace accommodations were similarly unavailable, according to Feldblum. People who were deaf or hard of hearing had no right to sign-language interpreters, for example, and people with psychiatric disabilities or HIV or AIDS weren’t able to take temporary leave to receive treatment.

Veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans, were discriminated against regularly out of fear that they might become violent due to post-traumatic stress disorder, says Ronald Drach, a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg during his service and is president of Drach Consulting in Oxford, Pa. 

Before the ADA, “stigma was acute for all types of disabilities,” says Deborah Dagit, president of Deb Dagit Diversity LLC in Washington, N.J. “Companies could openly discriminate without fear of reprisal, and myths about people with disabilities were treated as fact versus fiction,”  she says. “Employers could decide what kind of an accommodation a person with a disability should have, whether it worked for them or not.”

Civil rights legislation was “desperately needed” 30 years ago for Americans with disabilities who “were shamefully shunned and excluded from virtually every aspect of society,” says Andrés Gallegos, a member of the National Council on Disability in Washington, D.C., and an attorney with Robbins, Salomon & Patt in Chicago. The exclusion resulted not from their disabilities, but from environmental barriers “constructed by a society that had fashioned views of disability as shameful, grotesque, requiring fixing and, if fixing wasn’t possible, then segregation by institutionalization.” 

Apart from those employers covered by the Rehabilitation Act, Gallegos says, employers “had no legal obligation to provide disabled employees with any form of support or assistance to help facilitate their success at work.” 

Veterans were discriminated against regularly out of fear that they might become violent due to post-traumatic stress disorder, says Ronald Drach, a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg during his service.

The Rehabilitation Act: Groundwork for the ADA

Much of the ADA, including the reasonable accommodation requirement, was derived from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Meisinger notes.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits recipients of federal funds, including many universities and schools, from discriminating based on disability. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits federal contractors from discriminating based on disability and, unlike the ADA or Section 504, requires affirmative action for people with disabilities. 

But individuals cannot sue for violations of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, notes Larry Lorber, an attorney with Seyfarth in Washington, D.C., who used to head the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Instead, they must rely on the U.S. Department of Labor to sue on their behalf, he says.

SHRM’s Role in the Enactment of the ADA

Former SHRM CEO Susan Meisinger, far left, was a supporter of the ADA.The Society for Human Resource Manage­ment (SHRM) supported the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and “took a balanced approach,” weighing the needs of individuals with disabilities and employers, says Susan Meisinger, SHRM-SCP, J.D., former president and CEO of the Society. She served as SHRM’s vice president for government affairs when the ADA was being negotiated.

There were two main points of negotiation with the business community, Meisinger says: damages and concern over substance abuse. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 subsequently provided a sliding scale of damages based on company size, to be capped at $300,000 for employers with more than 500 employees. As for the substance-abuse concern, the ADA does not protect individuals based on a drug addiction. The ADA does protect those who have successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program or are currently participating in such a program and are no longer using prohibited drugs. 

Alcoholism is a covered disability, but the ADA may require an employee with alcoholism to meet the same standards of performance and behavior as other employees, though an employer may choose to offer the worker a last-chance agreement. Under a last-chance agreement, an employer agrees not to fire an employee in exchange for his or her agreement to receive treatment for substance abuse. 

“The ADA is a foundational workplace law, affecting work, workers and the workplace,” says Emily M. Dickens, SHRM’s corporate secretary, chief of staff and head of government affairs. “It informs compliance but, more importantly, workplace culture. SHRM seeks to keep the tenets of this law evergreen—continuing to work with HR professionals to implement best practices for inclusion and nondiscrimination as they seek talent wherever it is found.”   —A.S.

Bipartisan Support

The ADA transformed the lives of people with disabilities, and support for its passage came from both sides of the aisle. 

“There was a direct cause and effect between the AIDS epidemic and the enactment of the ADA,” Feldblum says. When George H.W. Bush ran for president, he was asked about a law prohibiting discrimination against those with AIDS. He was for such legislation but wanted a bill that prohibited discrimination against all people with disabilities. 

Justin Dart, who headed the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities—the predecessor for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy— at the time of the ADA’s enactment “was a major driver in persuading Bush to do something,” Meisinger says.

Bush was a “critical player,” says Silverstein, who was staff director and chief counsel to the Subcommittee on Disability Policy, working for Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and chief sponsor of the ADA. 

Bush sent numerous messages in favor of the ADA during his presidential campaign and delivered a speech at an inaugural ball sending the message that he supported a civil rights bill for people with disabilities. Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican who represented Kansas, also was key in ensuring that Republicans negotiated and passed the bill.

Grassroots Effort

Pat Wright, director of government affairs of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., spearheaded various grassroots efforts in the disability community, Silverstein says, noting that Wright was called “the general” for her leadership during the ADA’s enactment.

But the ADA would not have been possible without the disability rights movement that began in earnest in the early 1970s, according to Gallegos. “The disability rights movement was not led by a handful of individuals—although the movement has specific heroes—but by thousands of people who borrowed the tactics of other civil rights movements,” he says. “They mobilized; took to the streets in protest; staged sit-ins; testified before local, state and federal government officials; and wrote thousands of letters and placed calls to government officials in support of civil rights legislation for persons with disabilities.”

Gallegos adds that the galvanizing of the disability community to fight for civil rights legislation helped shape how people with disabilities came to view disability and themselves. Up to that point, he notes, many of them had “internalized the negative societal disability constructs.”

‘The signing of the ADA physically reshaped American communities by opening inaccessible spaces to people with disabilities.’ 
—Priyanka Ghosh

Progress Made

On July 26, 1990, Ghosh recalls, President Bush “spoke to the thousands assembled on the South Lawn of the White House, including many in attendance with disabilities, and proclaimed that the signing of the ADA ‘signals the end to the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life.’ 

“The signing of the ADA physically reshaped American communities by opening inaccessible spaces to people with disabilities,” Ghosh says. 

“The greatest impact initially was [on] public access, including transportation,” Dagit says. In addition, all new buildings had to be accessible, including having compliant wheelchair ramps, and renovations for older buildings were required to meet accessibility mandates. This opened up new opportunities for people with disabilities.

“I happen to be a wheelchair user who also has motor coordination/dexterity issues and visual limitations because of cerebral palsy,” says Amy Scherer, a staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network in Washington, D.C. She entered her freshman year of college at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., shortly after the passage of the ADA. “I was the first wheelchair user to attend this university. As a result of the ADA, they renovated one of the dorms so that I could live on campus and made adjustments to several of the inaccessible buildings so that I could easily attend classes.”

Workers with Disabilities Feel a Pinch in Their Paychecks

While these individuals tend to hold lower-paying jobs, including as drivers, cashiers and movers, they also earn less than people without disabilities in nearly all occupations. The difference grows as salaries increase. For instance, the wage gap in retail sales is about $3,200 per year. It rises to $10,000 for IT workers and a whopping $30,000 for chief executives.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Scherer notes that following her graduation from law school, she did not have to face intrusive questions about her disability and instead was able to focus on highlighting the skills she would bring to the job. “Despite the fact that I am unable to drive, I can get to and from my office independently each day by using the accessible public transportation system in my city,” she says. “Needless to say, my employment experience would have been much different without the passage of the ADA.”

Another game changer introduced by the ADA, according to Dagit, was methodology for identifying what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. People with disabilities now have a large say in what an accommodation will be, thanks to the requirement that employers discuss possibilities with them. 

There have, of course, been some bumps along the way. During the 1990s and early 2000s, for example, courts limited who was considered to have a disability. Even people with prosthetic limbs did not qualify, Feldblum notes. That changed when the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) restored the broad definition of disability originally envisioned by the law’s drafters.

The ADAAA put the law’s focus back on reasonable accommodation, which is the heart and soul of the ADA, says Lorber.

In addition, stigma against people with disabilities has decreased in recent years, Dagit says:  “While we still have a long way to go for full and equal access, we have made significant progress.”

Ongoing Discrimination and Barriers

Although the ADA has been in place for 30 years, “assumptions about the capabilities or presumed lack thereof of a person with a disability still remain a barrier to successful employment for people with disabilities,” says Cabell Clay, an attorney with Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte, N.C. “Stigmas against people with disabilities continue to exist.” 

It can be hard to change views that have been “hardened over decades and, like any other stereotype or prejudice, handed down between generations,” Gallegos says.

Accommodation Requests

Less than 14 percent of workers with disabilities seek special equipment or other workplace modifications, and when they do, the cost is usually negligible. Here are the most common changes sought and the percentage of workers seeking each one.

New or modified equipment: 33% 

Physical changes to the work environment: 21% 

Changes in communication or information sharing: 11.6%

Policy changes: 8.7%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Additionally, some employers still don’t fully understand what reasonable accommodation involves. All too frequently, Clay notes, “employers presume that accommodating an employee with a disability will be disruptive or expensive. In fact, it may be as simple as providing an extra five-minute break to allow an employee to check her blood sugar or providing a headset to accompany an employee’s phone.”

Dagit adds, “While we have seen dramatic improvements, it is still challenging to get from point A to B using public transportation, [and] unemployment remains high, as often, employees with disabilities are the last hired and first fired during changes in business conditions.” 

Dagit, who is 4 feet tall and has a large presence in the disability community, says she routinely encounters barriers on business trips, including:

  • Insufficient parking at the airport for people with disability permits.
  • Challenges transporting her service dog on a plane or train. Dagit says this can require “mountains of paperwork” that has to be updated annually and frequently involves inappropriate questions about the dog’s role.
  • Concern about whether her wheelchair or scooter will be operable when arriving at her destination.
  • Accessible hotel rooms that aren’t acceptable for her because they were designed for a man of average size with a spinal-cord disability. Dagit says she has to ask for a “regular room” with a bathtub, which can be hard to find.
  • Wheelchair entrances that are far from parking spots and hard to locate.
  • Security staff who do not want a service dog in the building.

Next Frontier: Web Access

When website designs pose problems, employers can lose out on top talent and the benefits that diversity brings. 

According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s (ODEP’s) Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology, these are accessibility problems commonly seen in website design:

  • Complex navigation.
  • Timeout restrictions.
  • Poor screen contrast.
  • Confusing, poorly written and inconsistent instructions. 
  • Inaccessible form fields.
  • Reliance on color, graphics or text embedded with graphics to convey directions or important information.
  • Images lacking alternative text.
  • Applications that require a mouse.
  • Videos or audio instructions that are not closed-captioned.
  • Inaccessible CAPTCHAs with no audio option.
  • Trouble uploading necessary documents.
  • Lack of contact information for technical support.
  • Lack of information on how to request an accommodation. 

The Society for Human Resource Man­age­ment (SHRM) is a partner in the ODEP Alliance, a cooperative program that enables organizations committed to improving workplace practices to develop and implement model disability policies and initiatives. The SHRM Foundation and the Workplace Initiative by Understood are also working to advance the employment of individuals with disabilities through the Employing Abilities@Work initiative and a new certificate program. The free training will help HR professionals and hiring managers better understand how to hire, retain and advance employees with disabilities.    —A.S.

The Way Forward

Thirty years later, “people with disabilities are still twice as likely to be unemployed” as those without disabilities, says Corinne Weible, co-director for the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology in Washington, D.C. “To close that gap, we all need to work together to make every workplace an inclusive workplace.”

Employment discrimination remains one of the top issues in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, says Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf in Silver Spring, Md. “Companies now will not blatantly refuse to hire or accommodate deaf or hard-of-hearing people on the basis of disability,” he explains, “but many have found other reasons or excuses not to hire them.”

In addition, many employers are reluctant to retain sign-language interpreters and often mistakenly believe interpreters are needed full time, he notes. 

One possible solution is for employers to establish a centralized reasonable accommodation fund (CRAF) to help pay for accommodation needs that might arise. While accommodations are often inexpensive and sometimes even cost nothing, “data on employment shows that employers in both the private and public sectors that hire the most deaf and hard-of-hearing people are those that have a working CRAF system in place,” Rosenblum says.

‘The disability rights movement was not led by a handful of individuals ... but by thousands who borrowed the tactics of other civil rights movements.’  
—Andrés Gallegos

For Chris Danielsen, J.D., director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, the main employment barriers for people with visual impairments are not legal but attitudinal. “Employers have low expectations and do not know the true capacity of blind people to perform the vast majority of jobs and job functions,” he says.

The main takeaway on the 30th anniversary of the ADA, says Disabled Action of Metropolitan New York’s Ryan, is that people with disabilities represent a valuable but largely untapped group of workers.

“Those of us with disabilities spend our lives ignoring discouragement, persisting through setback, solving problems and finding creative routes around obstacles,” Ghosh says. These are traits that any employer would be lucky to have in an employee.

As Gallegos puts it, thanks to the ADA, “persons with disabilities need not be dependent upon social programs but can contribute positively to society and live independently in pursuit of their own defined goals and dreams.”  

Allen Smith, J.D., is SHRM’s manager of workplace law content.

During the Pandemic, Recognize the Needs of Workers with Disabilities

The news is out, and it isn’t pretty: The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting long-standing inequities in the U.S. 

Some workers with disabilities face an elevated health risk. And while job prospects for those workers were brighter than ever at the start of 2020, mass layoffs and other consequences of the crisis could erase decades of hard-fought advancements in job opportunities and worker safety.

It will be months before concrete data on the pandemic’s impact are available. But the loss of jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industries where these workers are disproportionately represented is particularly worrisome, says Susan Bruyere, a professor of disability studies and the director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University.

“We know from prior recessions that individuals with disabilities are often the first to be laid off and the last to be reabsorbed,” Bruyere says. (During the worst period of layoffs in the Great Recession, disabled workers lost or left their jobs at nearly twice the rate of other workers, according to U. S. Labor Department data.)

Risks Rising

There also are new risks for disabled workers who are low-wage earners and still working during the pandemic.

Some are putting their health on the line by riding crowded buses and subways or working in fast-food restaurants, laundries, nursing homes and other places where social distancing is difficult, says Cheryl Bates-Harris, a disability advocacy specialist with the National Disability Rights Network, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group. Many of these workers were already at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 because of pre-existing health conditions.

Layoffs and furloughs at social service agencies and nonprofits mean that some individuals with severe disabilities are working without the support and guidance of job coaches and mentors, Bates-Harris adds.

Remote Advantages

There is, however, one bright spot that has emerged: Widespread shelter-in-place orders have increased work opportunities for individuals with mobility impairments who can work only at home, says Alan Hubbard, chief operating officer of the National Telecommuting Institute, a nonprofit that places disabled workers in home-based call center jobs. Large call centers have been overwhelmed by increased call volume, and some that couldn’t pivot to remote work have been forced to shut down, he says.

For employees who are deaf, work-at-home arrangements have been a great equalizer, says Scott Wills, a research chemist at Dow Chemical. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, he hired a number of deaf workers for scientific and technical jobs but feared they were missing out when their hearing colleagues chatted informally. “When everyone relies on text and e-mail, there is no undercurrent of watercooler conversations,” he says.

Expert Advice

Ignoring the needs of workers with disabilities is not just unfair, it may also be illegal. Here’s how employment law experts say companies can do the right thing and stay on the right side of the law:

  • Recognize the legal and moral responsibility to reasonably accommodate the needs of workers with disabilities.
  • Recognize that remote-work requests and other accommodations previously associated with such workers may benefit all employees.
  • Make sure social distancing and other special steps aimed at curbing the spread of the virus don’t disproportionately harm workers with disabilities.
  • Prove to those workers that HR is a trusted partner by helping to resolve any problems they may be having. 
  • Recall workers in a way that doesn’t disproportionately affect individuals with disabilities.

—Rita Zeidner