By Barbara Frankel
On July 26, 1990, when former President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law, it was heralded as the beginning of a new era of improved access and employment for people with disabilities.
As the nation celebrates this landmark civil-rights legislation impacting an estimated 56 million Americans, or 19 percent of the U.S. population, the progress of people with disabilities in the workplace remains a challenge. With new laws impacting employers and a growing realization in corporate America of the need to hire more skilled workers, disability advocates are cautiously optimistic.
“When you ask the employers what their greatest challenge in hiring people with disabilities is, they say a lack of qualified candidates,” said Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability (NOD). “Clearly there is a mismatch. What you have is companies very unfamiliar with the very system that is sourcing candidates. But at this point, I really do see a momentum beginning to build. Companies are beginning to recognize the bottom-line benefits.”
President Obama, noting the progress that has been made, also touted the need for more employment during a speech this week at the White House about the ADA’s historic anniversary. “Now, days like today are a celebration of our history. But they’re also a chance to rededicate ourselves to the future — to address the injustices that still linger, to remove the barriers that remain,” President Obama said. “We all know too many people with disabilities are still unemployed — even though they can work, even though they want to work, even though they have so much to contribute.”
Modeled after the Civil Rights Act and with strong bipartisan support, the ADA pledged to help people with disabilities go to work, attend school and with personal/civic participation. President Bush, who called the ADA one of his “proudest achievements,” said it was meant to “ensure that all should have the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”
The ADA includes both mental and physical disabilities and states that a condition does not need to be permanent to qualify. The definition of what is a disability was broadened in 2008. The ADA also states that employers with 15 or more employees cannot discriminate in hiring or firing based on a disability. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to job applicants and employees.
The law was most recently expanded in 2012, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) adopted a Strategic Enforcement Plan identifying emerging issues under the ADA as a national enforcement priority. The Department of Justice has also focused its enforcement priorities under the ADA issues surrounding access to technology. In 2010, President Obama signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to hire more workers with disabilities and, according to the White House, 57,000 have been added to the federal payroll since then.
While many of the areas covered by the ADA have come to pass, especially building regulations requiring more access for people with physical disabilities, employment remains the greatest obstacle.
Labor-force participation for working-age adults with disabilities, which was around 20 percent 25 years ago, is around 30 percent today, compared with about 63 percent for the general population.
“The labor-force participation rate is pretty obscene. We are trying to change the corporate culture to see the capabilities of people with disabilities and are not overwhelmed by what they perceive of as different; but the culture change is moving way too slowly as far as I am concerned,” said John Kemp, President and CEO of The Viscardi Center.
Corporate leaders suggested several ways to improve hiring of people with disabilities, including hiring interns, using social media and strong efforts by employee-resource groups. EY, the No. 1 company on The DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for People With Disabilities, increased its hiring of people with disabilities by 53 percent from October 2014 to June 2015 using these best practices.
New Laws and Regulations
There have been some changes in the past year that have made a significant impact:
• Last year, Congress passed the Achieving a Better Life (ABLE) Act, which increases the savings limit for people living on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid. Before the ABLE Act, people in this category could not save more than $2,000 without triggering a loss of benefits. The new law allows them to set up special savings accounts where they can save up to $10,000 without losing SSI benefits and they can keep Medicaid benefits, no matter how much they save. Modeled after 529 college-savings plans, the ABLE act also allows interest on these accounts to be tax-free.
• New regulations under Section 503 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, which became effective in March 2014, mandate that all federal contractors must not discriminate against people with disabilities and must use affirmative action to actively recruit, hire, promote and retain people with disabilities. The regulations have a 7 percent utilization goal, which must be applied to each job group or to the entire workforce if the contractor has fewer than 100 employees. The regulations also require data collection and record-keeping for employer accountability that must be held for three years. The regulations also require that contractors invite people to voluntarily disclose they have disabilities at both pre- and post-offer junctures.
• The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requires several federal agencies to increase the number of hires of people with disabilities, particularly the Department of Education and the Department of Labor.
• Pending legislation, which President Obama supports, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would increase educational support for the approximately 6.5 million U.S. students with disabilities. It ensures that teachers are better prepared for students with disabilities and that assessments better measure their progress.