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Landmark Disability Law Turns 23: Fight for Equality & Inclusion Continues

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.

Further Resources

* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

FYI -- White House issues Presidential Proclamation for ADA's 23rd Anniversary last week:

  • "Today, we celebrate the ADA's lasting legacy as a pillar of civil rights. We also recognize that while the law continues to move America forward, our march to equality is not yet complete.
  • Even now, barriers still keep too many people with disabilities from fully participating in our society and our workforce. Our country suffers when our citizens are denied the chance to strengthen our economy, support their families, and fully participate in our American life.
  • That is why my Administration is dedicated to leveling the playing field for Americans with disabilities.
  • We are committed to making the Federal Government a model employer by recruiting, hiring, and retaining more workers with disabilities than at any time in our Nation's history.
  • In addition, we are working to connect people with disabilities to jobs in every part of our economy.
  • Together, we have come a long way toward ensuring equal opportunity for all. On this anniversary, let us recommit to going the rest of the distance.

  • Let us enforce the ADA, promote disability rights at home and abroad, and make America a place that values the contributions of all our citizens -- regardless of disability.

Profile Photo Samantha Holquist

@David: great post, very informative! I did not know how many people had disabilities in the United States. Further, I never truly thought deeply about the problems they face everyday concerning employment. It is truly a group with untapped talent.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks so much for the insightful comments, Samantha.

If the public and private sector workforces don't tap into the talent base of qualified individuals with disabilities, then our global competitors most certainly will -- to the detriment of the U.S. economy and workplace diversity. Unfortunately -- as noted -- many myths, fears and stereotypes still abound -- which often results in unlawful employment discrimination against people with disabilities.

Profile Photo Julie Chase

Bravo! Love the sticker. And yes, it is Attitude. I know a young man with HFA and two college degrees. Can't get hired. (well, truth be told there is a hiring freeze in the fed right now). This young man worked as a STEP (until the funding ran out) and really enjoyed the experience working with senior engineers. After graduation he had hoped to land a job there. With hiring freezes in the last two years and the sequestration, it has been a hard row to hoe. I have spoken with his parents recently and sadly, he has filed for SSDI (never had it before, was convinced after college, he would get a job). His parents are paying back his student loan and he has just about given up. Fed service was his dream. Unfortunately, the EO of July 2010 doesn't have any teeth to it. It all depends on "funding". And there isn't any. The EEO here does a great job speaking with managers and supervisors about the clients they have with "the qualifications", but it falls on deaf ears. I pray for this young man and his family. David, you keep up the good work. And give a poke to DoN MC installations/bases and let them know there are great folks out there looking to be part of the team called civil service.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

As always, Julie, thanks for your valuable contribution to this discussion.

Leaders in the public and private sectors need to remember that qualified individuals with disabilities are a key part of the diversity equation and a key part of building model workplaces.

This means making disability employment an HR and EEO priority not only for recruitment and hiring but also retention and career advancement.

As you point out, this challenge is even more vexing in today's fiscal climate of budget austerity.

Profile Photo EEOC EXCEL

Want to learn more about EEO best practices and building model workplace in the public & private sectors (including state/local gov)???

Check out the EEOC's 16th Annual EXCEL training Aug. 27-29 in Denver -- and register today!

Also, show your support:

  • Follow us on Twitter @EEOC_EXCEL or hashtag #LearnEEO
  • "Friend" us via the EXCEL page on GovLoop here.

Profile Photo Dr. Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

I cannot agree more, "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."

Agency must come up with a clear policy on employment with candidates or employees with dissabilities to minimize discrimination. I don't see how we can eradicate discrimination but what agency can do is to discipline employees or managers if violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA is evident. I support the enforcement of the Rehabilitation Act and the American Disability Act. It is good for society if managers focus on abilities and not on disabilities.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the excellent feedback, Phuong. As always, your insightful comments are most appreciated.

The Rehab Act will turn 40 at the end of September, with the statute being commemorated by several federal agencies. I plan to address this topic further around that time, with a specific focus on disability employment in the federal government.

Thanks again!

Profile Photo Jon P. Bird

I know our agency does well in hiring those with disabilities, but is working hard to improve retention! You need to do more than just get those with disabilities in the door. You really have to make them part of your workforce.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

That's an excellent point, John, thanks so much for mentioning it.

Recruitment and hiring should be viewed as the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.

Employers must focus on retention and advancement through training, mentoring and career building within the organization. The primary focus should NOT be on the employee's impairment, but on his/her skills, ability and productivity. Sometimes all it takes is an equal opportunity.

Profile Photo Julie Chase

Often the fear of the unknown, I am referring to the non-visual disabilities that may reveal themselves during the workday or work week. Mentoring is key, however, not every agency has a program. If it involves money or training, DoN MC is out. The regional HR's need to be aware as well. The local installation office told this friend of mine to include the letter from the State Voc Rehab agency that he was he meets the criteria (KSA) and education level for the job he is applying. The EEO person told him that the HR region, upon receiving this letter should make a referral to hiring official if the KSA and education checks out. Guess what, someone hat HRC East didn't get the memo. It was the local EEO who hand delivered the resumes to the hiring official and made a call to HRC East letting them know...."hey, why weren't these candidates referred?" What we have here is a lack of communication. The hiring managers, the ones I have chatted with did NOT KNOW, that installation EEO could be their first stop in a hire. They did NOT KNOW that (in particular) Schedule A candidates could be hired without competition. They did NOT KNOW that hiring a person with disabilities will have someone on their team "months" ahead of a USA JOBS hire. So what needs to be done to get supervisors, managers, shop foreman, etc., "in the know" about this? I know many managers loathe the USA JOBS hiring...because it takes.....forever. I can understand why our installation is is a woeful .08% in the hire of persons with disabilities.

David, if you at a speaking engagement, please let folks know about the non-visual disabilities. There are folks out there with ASD or HFA (Austim Spectrum Disorder or High Functioning Autism) with KSA and a college education who are waiting for all types of engineering jobs, mathematical, earth sciences, computer science, et al. They won't look you in the eye and "tell you about themselves"...nor will they tell you about what they do on the weekends....but they will "work".

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks again for your excellent comments, Julie.

You hit the nail on the head, the key is parity: physical and mental disabilities are both covered equally under the ADA and Rehab Act in terms of protected status. Just because an individual's disability may not be visible does not mean it's frivolous or lacks merit under federal laws.

In fact, more and more people appear to be filing disability discrimination charges against employers due to mental impairments, such as depression and/or other psychiatric disabilities -- at least in the private sector (which includes state and local govs for EEOC reporting purposes). Check out the ADA stats here.

Following are more federal sector resource links that may be useful:

Profile Photo Julie Chase

ABC;s of Schedule A was my first introduction in helping this young man looking for a job in federal service. It was an "eye opener". Sadly, our EEO office are the only ones that know it chapter and verse. It is also our EEO who attends Schedule A seminars, conferences, and head up to the beltway to be beaten over the head as to why our installation disability hiring is a dismal fail. It is the mangers/supervisors, Directorate heads, and ALL HR folks who need to "know" this. It's like a secret that only EEO knows. I found the ABC's doing a Google Search. I found the form SF 256 on line and had him fill that out. Didn't know it existed. However, it needs to be updated, because he was looking for ASD and HFA and it wasn't on the form. This disability is very different depression and psychiatric disabilities. The SF 256 (the 2010 version) doesn't address it. A person with Asperger's Syndrome is developmentally delayed, not intellectually, but at the social-emotional level. I told him to put 06 in the box, and someone can ask him later if need be. Logically, he kept telling me, "It should be on the form." Ok, David...I'm telling you...lol....it should be on the form. lol lol lol I will read the other links you have posted here. Thank you!