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30 years after the ADA, disabled workers continue to fight for employment equality

The passing of the civil rights law ushered in a new beginning for workers with disabilities. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of the bill is companies’ hesitance to hire more of these workers and offer accommodations.

30 years after the ADA, disabled workers continue to fight for employment equality
[Photo: Maskot/Getty Images]

Street curbs must be wheelchair accessible. Discriminating against disabled job candidates is illegal. Businesses must remove any architectural barriers when updating existing facilities.

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These are a few of the most prominent outcomes of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed 30 years ago this month. The changes ushered in by the passage of the ADA revolutionized life for nearly 61 million American adults with disabilities—or nearly one in four people in the U.S.

The unfortunate reality is that the letter of the law can only take things so far; it’s up to people to live out its spirit.

The greatest disappointment has been in progress made toward economic independence and equal employment opportunity. Fair access to employment means greater economic self-sufficiency and more active participation in community life. However, accommodating workers with disabilities has been a persistent challenge.

In fact, a study published in Regulation, an economics and policy magazine, reports that an unintended consequence of the ADA is fewer companies have hired people with disabilities. The study explains that the fear of added cost to accommodate workers with disabilities, along with the threat of EEOC litigation for ADA noncompliance, have deterred employers from bringing people with disabilities on staff.

And for those who are able to obtain employment, studies show these workers with disabilities experience a significant wage gap. According to the U.S. Census, full-time, year-round workers with disabilities earn 87 cents on the dollar earned by those with no disability.

But sometimes, it takes a global pandemic to reveal a history of workplace inequity—or to at least give the issue mainstream attention.

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Most businesses were unprepared when it became clear COVID-19 would require many employees to work from home. In fact, it’s estimated that only 10 percent of firms with more than $1 billion in revenue already had employees who regularly worked from home. While the rapid transition from office to online has exposed immense gaps in digital accessibility, the issue of providing digital accommodations isn’t new. In fact, there has been a steady increase in the number of lawsuits being brought against employers for their failure to provide workplace-assistive technologies, fully accessible websites, and other equity accommodations.

Employers must recognize that providing the requisite tools for the job is not a nicety—but a necessity, for all employees, including those with disabilities.

Too many businesses that mean well either lack an understanding of the law or have been intimidated or confused by misconceptions around hiring workers with disabilities. They feel unsure around the topics of how to provide reasonable accommodations, what accommodations are in the first place, and how much cost is involved. Perhaps the word “accommodation” itself has a stigma that makes people think it means special treatment, when the law clarifies it is simply about providing people what they need to do their jobs.

Reasonable accommodations aren’t something to fear; they usually are not as expensive as people may think, nor are they disruptive or unfair. The best way to understand what accommodations people may need is to ask them. From there, you can learn how those requests can help workers do their jobs. It’s important to keep in mind that while the law absolutely requires employers to make reasonable accommodations, it doesn’t corner them into making just any accommodation. Employers are within their rights to deny requests and find agreeable alternatives if a change would cause an undue hardship or would considerably change the operation of the business or the position’s main duties.

For many, legal obligation isn’t enough to answer the question “What’s in it for me?” Those employers might be happy to learn that organizations that prioritize diversity and hire people with disabilities often see significant boosts to the top and bottom lines.

The fact is that disability types are, obviously, immensely broad, as are the individuals who are categorized as having a disability. By welcoming diversity in not just talent and mindsets, but disabilities, businesses can tap into a broader slice of the labor market.

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Another likely concern is that businesses may be overwhelmed by what constitutes ADA compliance, feeling uncertain about how to meet these standards appropriately. Fortunately, the ADA was crafted to help answer these questions (it is actually one of our country’s most specific and comprehensive civil rights laws), with a myriad of guidelines and counsel available to help employers ensure workplace accessibility.

The ADA was crafted to level the playing field for people with disabilities, to provide freedoms and accessibility granted to those without disabilities. And the impact of this legislation has been life-changing. But much more is necessary to realize the original vision and intent of the ADA.

With the 30th anniversary of the ADA’s passage this past week, lessons learned from a global health crisis combined with an unprecedented number of lawsuits for ADA violations make now an optimal time for employers to review what is possible in providing an equitable workplace experience for everyone.


Mark Shapiro is president of the Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BoIA), which strives to make the internet accessible to everyone by offering a suite of services that audit businesses’ online presence, identify areas of noncompliance, and give recommendations for how problem areas can be fixed.

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