Friday, July 16, 2010

Unfinished Business: The ADA Turns 20

This is a guest post from Jeffrey Stoller, Director of Communications and Outreach, John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.

On July 26, the nation will mark the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) being signed into law. It is rightly celebrated as a landmark civil rights bill that has benefited Americans both with and without disabilities.

Looking back over the past two decades, however, it is clear that removing physical barriers to work has not led automatically to meaningful employment opportunities for jobseekers with disabilities. In fact, a June 2010 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that less than 22% of working age Americans with disabilities participate in the current labor force – compared to 70% of those without disabilities.

It seems that the ADA’s success in improving access to workplaces has not guaranteed access to work itself. Assistive technology has helped people with disabilities connect with essential business equipment and information, and ADA design standards have brought ramps, automatic doors and wider corridors to new and renovated buildings nationwide. Yet, far too few jobseekers with marketable skills are being hired.

The issue of finding job opportunities for people with disabilities has become a greater challenge as a “jobless recovery” threatens to emerge from the country’s troubled economy. The scarcity of available jobs has occurred just as the ADA Amendments of 2008 are increasing the number of employees and jobseekers officially defined as “disabled.”

Persistent obstacles to disability employment.
A recent review of the ADA’s impact on employment by Rebecca Hastings of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) warned that many employers may still have an exaggerated sense of the cost of accommodating employees with disabilities. Companies are particularly uneasy about dealing with mental disabilities, or less obvious physical impairments. Others assume that ADA regulations will subject them to discrimination lawsuits for any business decision that adversely impacts their employees.

Interestingly, employers themselves acknowledge that supervisor confusion over ADA accommodation requirements and a failure to recognize a disabled person’s true skill levels are leading barriers to employing job candidates with disabilities. These problems, highlighted in a 2006 study of “Employer ADA Response” by Dr. Susanne Bruyere and colleagues at Cornell University, were especially common in small firms which serve as the leading source of new jobs created within the U.S. economy.

Weak enforcement of ADA employment provisions.
The slow progress in increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities since 1990 may also be traced to a failure to distribute adequate information to covered employers or enforce the laws by government. As the Cornell study suggests, employers of all sizes report a need for more information on complying with ADA provisions, particularly those on how to properly accommodate disabled workers and jobseekers.

At the same time, jobseekers complain that governments have failed to devote sufficient resources to enforcing the employment discrimination laws and other regulations that make workplaces more accessible. For example, inadequate transportation for disabled commuters was a recently highlighted in the Boston Globe (June 28, 2010) in an article describing the failure of local police to ticket drivers who block access to bus stops.

What can be done to make the ADA a more effective tool for promoting disability employment? After 20 years, there is still a compelling need for disability groups to work more closely with employers to explain the relevant laws and encourage ways to introduce workers with disabilities into the incumbent workforce. Internships and programs that train jobseekers in high-demand skills are among the joint projects that employers and advocates can pursue together in order to give businesses the talent they are seeking. Clearly, there are many more years ahead before the ADA’s promise can be fully realized.