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Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act in Tougher Times

July 25 2009 | by

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Break out the balloons! Sunday marks the 19th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law that guarantees equal opportunity for the nearly 54 million Americans with disabilities. Signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, the ADA touches many areas of life, including employment.

Hold on, did that balloon just deflate? I’ve just read the most recent employment numbers for the 13 million working-age Americans with disabilities. In June, only 23 percent of disabled people had jobs, vs. 72 percent of those without disabilities. This makes me wonder, is the nearly 20-year-old ADA really helping?

The disabled unemployment rate – currently at 14.3 percent — has steadily declined since the passage of the ADA. Disability-friendly companies like IBM, Wal-Mart and Ernst & Young openly hire qualified people with disabilities, and from high-profile disability organizations like the U.S. Business Leadership Network. More employers are aware of disability, reasonable accommodation and assistive technology. Many companies have started employee networks for disability awareness, which demonstrates understanding, at the very least.

So if the ADA has helped, why are so many disabled people still out of work? A few reasons, and none of which are very politically correct. In today’s information age, hiring managers continue to discriminate, even indirectly. They can scope out people’s backgrounds online in places like Facebook, Flickr and LinkedIn, peeking at their photos and special interests. I’ve seen it happen among colleagues, even if it’s against company policy.

Hiring processes at many companies are also out of date. You know the drill: A wide list of candidates is screened then weaned, based on their weaknesses. The disabled really don’t stand a chance.

Because the ADA and the threat of lawsuits still scare many employers, the workplace has yet to reach the disability-hiring frontier. As a result, only a handful of companies have put strategies in place to find and hire the disabled. This initiative usually falls under a company’s inclusion strategy, which requires lots of brainpower and a team devoted to inclusion. By the way, Chief Inclusion Officer is one of the coolest titles I’ve ever heard of, but is rare in the corporate world. (Hint: If you’re disabled and job hunting, check to see if the company has a diversity and inclusion team.)

In an excellent editorial for the Belmont (Mass.) Citizen-Herald, Raymond E. Glazier writes that many disabled people — particularly those with extreme physical or mental conditions – that want to work are pinned down by an outdated Social Security system. Applications for Social Security, which pays cash benefits for people who cannot work due to disability, generally go up in times of recession because the disabled are more likely to have part-time jobs with no benefits. These are the first jobs to get cut when times are tough — like right now.

There are 12.4 million Social Security recipients with disabilities. In this all-or-nothing system, nobody is allowed to make more than around $1,000 a month, or they risk losing benefits. Thus, Glazier argues that disability is linked to poverty, and reinforces poverty. The system is a weak net “with giant holes,” and one that the Obama Administration should look to change. One suggestion: tweak the system to resemble the Veterans Affairs’ approach, where veterans with service-connected disabilities qualify for minimal or maximal benefits based on their level of disability.

I have reason to believe that when the cloud lifts over the current economic climate, people with disabilities will have opportunities again. Baby boomers will eventually have to retire, and there will be a hiring shortage. Assistive technology is becoming more mainstream, thanks to efforts from companies like Apple, as well as vendors that commit to making products for helping people talk, learn, write, hear and see, in non-traditional ways.

And the ADA will be even more significant as today’s children grow up and join the workforce. With an estimated 6 percent of U.S. children having special needs, this tech-savvy generation will expect the same protections that were applied to them during their educational years. Indeed, the children are the future. O.K., pass me that balloon again.

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