In case you missed it, July 26 marked the 23rd anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The groundbreaking statute was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 (pictured above). Since then, the ADA has been instrumental in securing justice and equal opportunity for people with disabilities in all facets of American life.
The ADA has commonly been described as the Emancipation Proclamation for the Disability Community and the first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities.
Thomas Perez, the new Secretary of Labor, said this week:
- “The ADA has made us a more inclusive, more humane society, one that is more faithful to our founding ideals. It changed the law, yes; but in so doing it also changed hearts, minds and attitudes. It has revolutionized the way society thinks about individuals with disabilities, and it revolutionized the way people with disabilities live in our communities. It literally opened millions of doors for millions of people who had been marginalized and ostracized.”
Rehabilitation Act and the ADA
The ADA is enforced by several federal agencies. It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in private sector employment and state/local governments (Title I), public services (Title II), public accommodations (Title III), and telecommunications (Title IV). Title V of the ADA covers miscellaneous provisions.
The Rehabilitation Act, which preceded the ADA by nearly 17 years, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs:
- Conducted by federal agencies,
- Receiving federal financial assistance,
- In federal employment, and
- In the employment practices of federal contractors.
The standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, are the same as those under Title I of the ADA. The Rehab Act (for short) was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973 and will turn 40 on September 27.
Despite Progress, Discrimination Persists
Unfortunately, despite the progress made, full equality and inclusion for people with disabilities remains fleeting in American society. Two decades after passage of the ADA, disability discrimination remains a persistent problem nationwide. This is evidenced by a lack of equal access to public facilities to a lack of equal access to jobs.
According to statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 26% of all private sector discrimination charge filings in Fiscal Year 2012 contained an allegation of disability bias (including against state and local governments). That’s up from 19% of all charge filings in the early 2000s.
Myths, fears and stereotypes about individuals with disabilities still abound. The stigma of having a disability has not disappeared. Therefore, more needs to be done to insure a level playing field and eradicate discriminatory barriers for the disability community — which comprises a large segment of the U.S. population.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 57 million Americans have some type of disability (based on the 2010 Census). It’s also important to remember that disabilities affect people of every race, religion, color, gender, age and ethnicity.
Thus some minorities with disabilities may face a double or triple dose of discrimination. For example, a black female who uses a wheelchair might be discriminated against based on race and gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as well as disability status under the ADA.
On the brighter side, the U.S. government has made a positive impact on the lives of tens of millions of citizens with physical and mental disabilities. Moreover, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 — signed into law by President George W. Bush — has opened more doors for disabled individuals to receive job accommodations which allow them to work with dignity in a discrimination-free environment.
Pool of Untapped Talent
From an economic perspective, people with disabilities represent a large pool of untapped talent for the private sector and public sector workforce. They also significantly contribute to consumer spending, a key economic indicator.
According to a July 2012 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports: Americans with Disabilities:
- “The population of people with disabilities inhabit a distinct position in the U.S. economy, both for their contributions to the marketplace and roles in government policies and programs.
- People with disabilities bring unique sets of skills to the workplace, enhancing the strength and diversity of the U.S. labor market.
- In addition, they make up a significant market of consumers, representing more than $200 billion in discretionary spending and spurring technological innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Nevertheless, people with disabilities are:
- Less likely to be employed,
- More likely to be in poverty, and
- Earn about $10,000 less than the average median earnings.
Thus even though it’s been 23 years since enactment of the ADA, the fight for disability rights, full inclusion and equal justice continues.
- The White House
- U.S. EEOC
- Department of Labor
- Department of Justice
- Department of Transportation
- Department of Defense, CAP
- National Council on Disability
* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.