The ADA at 25: Important Gains, but Gaps Remain

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Experts discuss the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A review of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on its silver anniversary last week reveals significant accomplishments, but also shows that action is needed in several areas by the government, employers and society.

After the ADA came into effect, Americans with disabilities gained better access to public places, transportation and job opportunities. However, they continue to face thinly veiled discrimination from some employers and reduced access to the Internet. Government funding of programs for people with disabilities are under threat, even as the baby boomer generation begins to swell the population of people in need of such initiatives. Hope lies in changing public attitudes and using technology to remove barriers for people with disabilities, according to experts.

The gains from the ADA have “exceeded expectations” in some respects, with “a sea change” in the removal of physical barriers and improved public attitudes toward people with disabilities, said Lex Frieden, professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, who is credited with being the chief architect of the ADA. However, he was unhappy with the progress on the employment front. “People with disabilities … who are skilled, trained and ready to work simply can’t get in the door to begin with,” he noted.

The Internet era blossomed after the ADA was enacted, but it is virtually inaccessible for people who are blind or deaf, and people with learning disabilities, said Lennard Davis, a University of Illinois at Chicago English professor who specializes in disability studies. “The old goal [of the ADA] used to be to open up all the doors on Main Street. Now, the new Main Street is the Internet Twitter ,” he pointed out. Davis is also author of the new book, Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest U.S. Minority Its Rights.

According to Wharton management professor Adam Cobb, the ADA has made it easier for people with disabilities who are older or injured to maintain their jobs. “[It] also sensitizes [employers] to the fact this is an untapped labor market pool,” he said. “If a firm does things the right way, it can tap into this pool and potentially get a lot of value out of it.”

“People with disabilities … who are skilled, trained and ready to work simply can’t get in the door to begin with.”–Lex Frieden

Frieden, Davis and Cobb discussed the strides made since the enactment of the ADA and the challenges ahead on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Gains after the ADA

Frieden said the ADA today helps 53 million Americans with disabilities and their families. He added that “a broader part of the population” is now participating in helping improve access for people with disabilities. For instance, in most stadiums, public address announcements are made both orally and in print.

“A lot of people who [aren’t] deaf or … hearing impaired pay more attention to the signage than they do to the public address announcements,” Frieden said. Similarly, people who never thought of themselves as having a disability, but who are aging or healing from an injury, use ramps on public transit buses, he pointed out. Davis noted there have been several other improvements in public accommodation, transportation and telecommunications for people who are deaf, including closed captioning on television.

According to Cobb, the quality of work now available to Americans with disabilities has also improved in the last 25 years. “It is easier [for people with disabilities] to get into the building, they are more likely to get a promotion, and their pay is more on par with those of their colleagues,” he said. That, he added, “also has positive benefits for everyone else.”

Gaps in Employment and Funding

But the gains are less than desired in employment opportunities for people with disabilities, according to Frieden. “The ADA wasn’t intended to be an affirmative action law, so I am not surprised that companies haven’t been as aggressive [in hiring people with disabilities],” he said. “But I am surprised that people with disabilities still face what may be subversive discrimination.”

“The old goal [of the ADA] used to be to open up all the doors on Main Street. Now, the new Main Street is the Internet.”–Lennard Davis

Davis said some employers continue to pass over qualified people with disabilities. “There is a subtle distinction there that an employer might make unconsciously or consciously and say, ‘There’s going to be a little bit more trouble having this person; we’ll just choose the other person,’” he said. “It’s very hard to prove that as a case of discrimination.” One way to overcome those barriers is to have “better images in TV and movies of people with disabilities, and those roles need to be played by disabled actors,” he added.

Davis found it “shocking” that between 75% and 80% of people with disabilities in the U.S. are unemployed. By comparison, in Europe, many countries have laws that encourage employers to take affirmative action in hiring people with disabilities, he said. According to European Union data, as of July 2014, 47.3% of its people with basic activity difficulties in the region were employed.

Cobb said that the ADA initially did not significantly improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities. In most legal battles that followed, the courts found the accusing party as not qualified for the job, or the subject didn’t fall within the ambit of the law, he added.

However, salutary changes began occurring after amendments to the ADA in 2008, Cobb and Frieden noted. The amendments broadened the definition of “disability” to include a greater number of people. They also overturned previous court decisions that restricted benefits depending on the ability to correct a disability or the extent to which it limits life activity.

Davis worried about continued budget support. “Funding is in big danger for a lot of these programs that help people with disabilities and provide services,” he said. He noted that candidates in the 2016 presidential election campaign have already begun “pointing fingers at people with disabilities and saying they are frauds, and that 50% of the people receiving benefits are essentially faking it.” He noted that fraud rates for disability benefits are under 1%, “which is pretty good for any government program,” but feared that “they are going to be exaggerated.”

Frieden said he is more concerned about issues such as the pressure from the 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 as they retire and some of them become disabled. “[They] will have demands on the economy, society, infrastructure and on their environment — we need to prepare for that population.”

Preparing for New Markets

Davis called for “a better societal sense” of what disability is. “It’s probably true that most people are going to be disabled or temporarily disabled at some point in their lives,” he said.

“It is easier [for people with disabilities] to get into the building, they are more likely to get a promotion and their pay is more on par with those of their colleagues.”–Adam Cobb

According to Frieden, the key is “to give people who want to be a part of the mainstream and to contribute to the collective benefits of society the opportunity to do that.” Removing barriers for people with disabilities is an important step in doing so, he added.

Technology can help, Frieden continued, adding that the sector has made it possible for many people with disabilities to work productivity. For example, he pointed out that many companies today employ people working out of their homes, and some universities have changed their curricula so that students don’t have to sit in classrooms. Cobb added that businesses could use these technological innovations in ways that serve a broader population than just people with disabilities.

Frieden noted that the travel industry has also taken the initiative in removing those barriers because it sees future markets in that population. “That is the real challenge for business — to see those markets and be at the forefront of encouraging those people to earn money and to spend money — and that will help us all,” he said.

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