This past Sunday, July 26, marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by President George H. W. Bush, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on disability. The ADA also ensures equal access in government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and public transportation.
At the bill’s signing, President Bush said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” And indeed, the ADA has resulted in heightened visibility for people with disabilities who previously would have spent much of their lives inside their homes or in an assisted-living facility.
However, despite gains in mobility and access to education over the last 25 years, people with disabilities are twice as likely to be poor as someone without a disability, and fewer than one in five are employed. Some blame the ADA for the disparity.
According to the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, in 1990, about 28.4 percent of people with disabilities were employed. In 2013, that number was 14.4 percent.
Those who blame the ADA for contributing to the problem say the law makes employers hesitant to hire people with disabilities because they are unsure what accommodations they will be required to provide, and they fear being sued for non-compliance.
Michael Morris, executive director of the National Disability Institute in Washington, D.C., says another barrier to employment for many people with disabilities is accessible transportation. Additionally, students with disabilities are less likely to graduate from high school and college.
And in a catch-22, people with disabilities risk losing federal disability benefits if they amass more than $2,000 in savings, which can deter some from seeking employment. However, a bill passed in December 2014 makes it easier for people with disabilities to save money. The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014 allows people with disabilities to establish a savings account that is exempt from the current cap.
Changes made to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act in March of last year could also help improve economic opportunities for people with disabilities. The new rules require federal contractors and subcontractors to increase outreach and recruiting and aim for a workforce that is comprised of 7 percent people with disabilities.
The new rules also urge employers to invite self-identification of disabilities in the job-application stage and after the person is hired, with the hope that openness between employer and employee could quell anxieties faced by both parties.
*This story was adapted from a July 23, 2015, article published on npr.org.