This week marks 30 years since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law with strong bipartisan support. The law prohibits discrimination in employment, transportation and public accommodations against people with disabilities.
Yet although the ADA has had a real impact on limiting discrimination, there is still more that needs to be done. For one thing, unemployment among people with disabilities who can and want to work is still much higher than for other adults. Even before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 8% — twice what it was for American adults generally. Since COVID-19, that rate has reached 16.5%, compared to 11% for adults in general.
Part of that is explained by the reality that many people with disabilities work low-level jobs that were eliminated when the pandemic struck. Yet discrimination still exists.
“It really seems to be last hired, first fired,” says a Rutgers University political scientist who studies disability and employment. “Even 30 years after the ADA, there’s still a lot of employer reluctance.”
That reluctance seems gradually to be changing. The same political scientist notes that, before the ADA, people with disabilities would be stared at if they made it out and about to live their lives. Now, people in wheelchairs, people with visual impairments and people with many other types of disabilities are able to reach restaurants, libraries and workplaces. It’s more accepted, more visible.
Coronavirus aid and accommodations could help
Advocates for people with disabilities are pushing Congress to include some long-desired benefits in the next coronavirus aid package. For example, many have wanted the government to provide more money for job coaches and transportation for people with disabilities. These could be crucial to getting people in a position where they live independently and are connected to the community.
Moreover, the coronavirus has made some workplace accommodations routine. Now that many people are working from home, they are relying on many of the same accommodations that people with disabilities had long been denied. Beyond additional transportation and job coaching services, people with disabilities may need greater access to education and computers to take advantage of the chance to work from home.
The ADA represented a shift in perspective
Historically, a Rutgers economist told the Associated Press, most people assumed that a person’s disability was their individual problem, or their family’s problem to overcome. That didn’t take into account how many barriers for people with disabilities are societal.
The ADA represented the view that society has a major role to play in making sure that people with disabilities aren’t excluded from participation in major parts of life, including employment. That work continues.