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29 Years Later, the Fight to Fulfill the Promise of the ADA Continues

George H.W. Bush signs the ADA into law with four people around him, two of whom are wheelchair users

President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

This year marks the 29th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After years of hard work, activism and protest by thousands of people with disabilities, an American president lifted his pen to tear down “the shameful wall of exclusion.” In signing the ADA, former President George H.W. Bush called on all Americans to join in the great work to “remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted.”

Today, nearly three decades later, the work to remove those barriers continues. “The ADA was meant to ensure that people with disabilities could earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else,” said former member of Congress and current Chairman of the national disability organization RespectAbility, Steve Bartlett, while reflecting on the anniversary. “Significant challenges remain to fulfill the promise of inclusion and independence.”

The work to address those challenges continues. Dozens of disability-led organizations and disability rights groups are working together to fulfill the promise of the ADA. The Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (CCD), “which collectively represents millions of Americans with all types of disabilities” coordinates the efforts of more than 120 member organizations “to advocate for federal public policy that ensures the self-determination, independence, empowerment, integration, and inclusion of children and adults with disabilities in all aspects of society.” Groups such as Disability:In and the National Organization on Disability work with some of the global economy’s largest businesses to promote diversity, inclusion and hiring for employees with disabilities. In the international realm, the United States International Council on Disabilities (USICD) works with disability leaders across the globe to advance the cause of international disability rights. Together, such efforts are critical to continue advancing the high ideals embodied by the ADA.

According to the best available data, one in four American adults live with a disability. That total includes more than 61 million people living across every community in the United States. It includes people who are blind or deaf or have other visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries. It also includes peoples living with invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities, mental health conditions or on the Autism spectrum. Counted within that number are people from every segment of the broad mosaic of America society. Every racial group, every gender identity, and every aspect of society is deeply connected to the lived experience of people with disabilities.

Disability employment was a key issue that the ADA was meant to address. In his remarks on that hot July day, President Bush had a special message for the business community. He argued that people with disabilities are “a tremendous pool of people who will bring to jobs diversity, loyalty, proven low turnover rate, and only one request: the chance to prove themselves.” Today, American with disabilities still face challenges in entering the workforce. The 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium shows that out of more than 20 million working-age people with disabilities, only 7.5 million have jobs. Overall, the employment rate for people with disabilities has risen to 37 percent (compared to 28.7 percent 29 years ago), which is still far behind that of people without disabilities.

“Employment rates only tell part of the story,” added Philip Kahn-Pauli, Policy and Practices Director at RespectAbility. “When you look across the intersection of disability and race, you find serious gaps in outcomes.” Only 28.6 percent of African Americans with disabilities have jobs compared to the 38.6 percent of Hispanics with disabilities and 41.2 percent of Asian Americans with disabilities who have jobs.

Last year, 111,804 people with disabilities entered the workforce for the first. Among the 50 states, 29 states saw job gains for Americans with disabilities. The states that have added more jobs have done so because of cooperation and collaboration among leaders in the community, in government and in the school system. States that have seen remarkable growth in jobs for people with disabilities such as Florida, Virginia and Illinois can attribute part of their success to programs such as Project SEARCH. SEARCH is a program for young adults with disabilities to improve their skills, learn from job coaches and ultimately find a job. Data shows that 70 percent of SEARCH interns who complete their training obtain competitive employment. By expanding such critical programs and working toward the principles of Employment First, states across the country can greatly increase the number of people with disabilities entering the workforce.

As more companies hire employees with disabilities, conversations are shifting to focus on inclusion. “Disability inclusion is no longer about automatic doors, curb cuts, ramps, and legislation,” said Jim Sinocchi, Head of the Office of Disability Inclusion at JP Morgan Chase. “Today, the new era of disability inclusion is about ‘assimilation’– hiring professionals with disabilities into the robust culture of the firm.”

Brand name companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Coca-Cola, Ernst & Young, IBM, Walgreen’s, Starbucks, CVS and Microsoft show people with disabilities are successful employees. Companies that embrace employees with disabilities clearly see the results. According to Accenture, disability-inclusive companies have higher productivity levels and lower staff turnover rates, are twice as likely to outperform their peers in shareholder returns and create larger returns on investment.

As the nation marks the anniversary of the ADA, it is critical to remember that disability is part of the human experience. It is nothing to fear because all of us will be affected by it eventually, whether by accident, aging or illness. Opening more job opportunities to people with disabilities will mean stronger communities and a better economy for all. That was the promise of the ADA and it is a promise that all of us must work to fulfill.

Meet the Author

Philip Pauli
Philip Pauli

Philip Kahn-Pauli is the Policy and Practices Director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. He works with state leaders to develop solutions for youth with disabilities, support job seekers with disabilities and open pathways into the workforce. To reach him, email philipp@respectability.org.

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