Happy Birthday, ADA: An Essential Step, But Our Work Continues

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law 29 years ago today. At the time of ADA’s passage, I was a month away from starting kindergarten. I was disabled, and had not yet experienced integrated schooling, as I had attended a preschool for blind children. But, I did not yet know what a disability was or that I had one.

My right to a free, appropriate public education had already been guaranteed prior to the ADA. But the ADA protected my right to accommodation in employment and in all nonreligious settings serving the public. Because of the ADA, I can walk into a doctor’s office, or a grocery store, and ask for reading assistance without fear of being kicked out because “we’re too busy.” Employers can’t ask about my disability, or deny needed accommodations unless they would presentan “undue hardship” to the business. But perhaps the most significant benefit of the ADA has come to people with physical disabilities whose very literal access to public spaces depends on their design. The ADA requires all new buildings serving the public to be constructed in a manner allowing full access for wheelchair users and others with physical disabilities.

Disabled people from the generation before mine remember living in pre-ADA America. They fought for the basic civil rights protections afforded by the ADA. The ADA has allowed access to community life for millions of Americans.

But, the ADA has been far from a panacea. A significant group of blind Americans warned that the ADA could increase custodial treatment and over-accommodation of disabled people. To address this concern, a provision was passed within the ADA ensuring that individuals can refuse unnecessary accommodations.

More troubling, though, employment rates for Americans with disabilities have not improved appreciably since the ADA passed. There are a variety of reasons for this. One thing that definitely happens is that employers may over-estimate the cost or the burden of hiring disabled workers. In the old days, employers would openly turn away disabled applicants. Now, post-ADA, employers may claim other reasons for not hiring disabled workers, or even outright lie and say a position has been filled, while continuing to screen nondisabled applicants. A research participant of mine once shared that he came to a job interview as scheduled, was told that the position had already been filled, then overheard another person being called back for an interview while he was waiting for his ride home. While such blatant lies may not be the norm, in today’s competitive job market, it is easy for openly disabled applicants to be passed up without any stated reason and no clear proof that discrimination was at play.

Furthermore, the ADA in isolation cannot fix technology-related barriers in the workplace. In 1998, legislation was passed requiring federal agencies to make their websites and information technology accessible. But, there has been a dearth of specific regulations governing how the ADA applies to the Internet and other 21st-century media. Workplace technology is constantly evolving, and even with laws requiring access, it takes time for workplaces to properly identify and remove technology-related access barriers every time there is an upgrade, or a new release. Consequently, we see disabled workers laid off or demoted when the call center where they work starts using a new call management system, for example.

The ADA was pivotal because it enacts a spirit of inclusion and an awareness that disabled Americans deserve civil rights protections. But, inclusive attitudes cannot be legislated. As long as people continue to misunderstand, fear, hate, pity, or envy people with disabilities, discrimination will still occur. Laws like the ADA may just encourage people to sweep the discrimination under the carpet instead of letting it lie in plain view. And when discrimination is hidden or swept under the rug, it becomes even harder to manage. It’s a little like that stinky old broccoli I accidentally left in my fridge for a month, and finally found on the very back of the shelf. Stunk up my whole kitchen until I could find and dispose of it.

We need laws like the ADA to guide organizations toward inclusion. But, what will really enact long-term change is the widespread cultural belief that disabled people are valued members of our communities. In my work, I am encouraged to meet organizations that are taking strides toward full inclusion and access because they want to, not just because they are being forced to do so by the hand of the law. Real revolution requires all of us to identify and confront our own misunderstandings, fears, and other involuntary reactions we have around someone whose abilities differ from our own. Once we identify these internal roadblocks, we can work to correct them and to build systems free of discrimination. As more disabled people are being integrated in schools, workplaces, housing, and civic life, I hope to see a more unified valuing of inclusion nationwide and worldwide.

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