More than 1,000 protesters gathered near the iconic west steps of the U.S. Capitol on March 12, 1990. The steps have been the site of many rallies throughout American history, but this protest was unlike any before. At the time, the Capitol had no wheelchair ramps, which limited access to “the people’s house” for those unable to climb the 78 steps leading to the public entrance. As the rally continued, around 60 people cast aside their wheelchairs and began crawling up the Capitol steps.
What became known as the “Capitol Crawl” was a startling and symbolic visual for the members of Congress inside debating a bill that would soon become the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The legislation was the culmination of decades of political activism by and for the 50 million Americans living with a disability who were seeking equal rights after centuries of discrimination, isolation and dehumanization. The Capitol Crawl helped push the ADA through Congress to the desk of President George H.W. Bush, a strong advocate for the bill from the start. Bush signed the ADA into law in a ceremony on the White House lawn on July 26, 1990.
The ADA is one of the rare pieces of legislation that has touched the lives of every American.
The ADA is one of the rare pieces of legislation that has touched the lives of every American. The curb cuts that bicyclists and parents pushing strollers enjoy were required by the ADA so wheelchair users could cross streets independently. Voice recognition technology that now allows anyone to order groceries from devices on their kitchen countertop or send text messages without using their hands was developed to accommodate those unable to type. In fact, the now-ubiquitous act of text messaging was first adopted by the deaf community.
The ADA does more than just make life easier for those with disabilities, however. At its core, it is a civil rights law. Congress declared that having a disability is a natural part of the human experience and cannot be the basis of discrimination in any aspect of life. No longer could a disability deprive anyone of access to health care, public transportation, telecommunications or employment.
Beyond eliminating discrimination, the ADA proclaimed that people with disabilities have a right to experience basic life activities in a manner similar to those without disabilities. Public places, including retail stores, transportation services, government offices and workplaces, have a legal duty to uphold this right by making reasonable accommodations to provide access to anyone with any kind of disability.
“Prior to 1990, there was no national requirement that disabilities be accommodated. Because of the ADA, disabled people anywhere in the country can work, commute, shop, access entertainment and more,” says Illinois Senator Dan McConchie (R), himself a paraplegic resulting from a hit-and-run car accident in 2007.
ADA in the Workplace
A key goal of the ADA was to enable people with disabilities to live as independently as possible. But independence requires financial security, and usually, financial security requires employment. Not even 50 years ago, society generally viewed those with disabilities as incapable of being equally productive members of society. They were often isolated or placed in institutions. Those with invisible disabilities like chronic pain or mental health disorders dared not disclose their condition to their employers for fear of being fired.
The ADA sought to tackle these stigmas head on. Title I of the law improved access to the workplace by addressing employment discrimination. No longer could hiring managers ask about a job applicant’s disability status, nor could they choose not to hire someone because of a disability. Workers were no longer obligated to disclose a disability to their employer. But, if they did, their employer could not use that information against them by reducing their job responsibilities, terminating their employment or retaliating in any other way.
As public and private sector employers began embracing the post-ADA reality and integrating more people with disabilities into the workforce, it became apparent that the old stigmas were completely unfounded. In fact, research shows that workers with disabilities not only perform at the same level as those without disabilities but often perform better. Workers with disabilities also tend to be more loyal to their employer and raise workplace morale.
Labor-force-participation and employment rates for those with disabilities are higher now than they were in 1990, but they still lag far behind the employment data for people without disabilities. The Great Recession in 2008 and the current COVID-19 economic disruption have greatly stalled employment progress. Many employment barriers still exist, including access to reliable transportation and difficulties identifying effective workplace accommodations to help employees with disabilities perform their essential job duties.
Some stigma remains in the workplace, particularly around mental health. Texas Representative Garnet Coleman (D) is a champion of mental health awareness, including being open about his own diagnosis of bipolar disorder. “We have made progress, but there is still stigma around people living with mental health conditions,” Coleman says. “With proper therapy, treatment, and/or medication, a vast majority of individuals with mental illness can live full, productive lives. Yet, people with mental illness, including myself, still face stigma at work from some of our colleagues that makes us believe we cannot be trusted to do our jobs.”
We have made progress, but there is still stigma around people living with mental health conditions. —Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Texas)
Federal programs like the Job Accommodation Network provide free consultation for employers seeking effective and affordable workplace accommodations. The network reports that 19% of accommodations cost nothing and 50% of them cost less than $500. The U.S. Departments of Labor and Transportation have numerous programs and initiatives seeking to reduce employment barriers for people with disabilities.
States have addressed employment barriers as well, including within their own employment practices. States can serve as model employers for the private sector by demonstrating the benefits of inclusive hiring. In 2016, NCSL and the Council of State Governments, in collaboration with the Labor Department’s State Exchange on Employment and Disability, convened a national task force of state lawmakers to develop a policy framework on workforce development for people with disabilities. The task force’s findings, summarized in the report “Work Matters: A Framework for States on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities,” identify 13 policy options and hundreds of innovative state examples in areas like hiring, accessible transportation, education and technology.
Senator McConchie recently passed legislation requiring the Illinois attorney general to collect and publish data on ADA accessibility violations with the intent to make facilities across the state more accessible. “I frequently encounter buildings or accommodations, even those newly built or newly remodeled, that either have accessibility issues or technically comply with the law, but do not provide equal access in the way the ADA envisioned. We can do better, and I’m determined to help my state be a leader in the evolution of the ADA state-by-state, he says.
In recognition of ADA’s 30th anniversary, a few states, including Virginia and Washington, are using resolutions and executive orders to reaffirm their commitment to creating inclusive workplace cultures for job seekers and employees with disabilities.
The Next 30 Years
The nature of work is changing for all Americans. The growing reliance on technology, artificial intelligence, telework and the gig economy presents great opportunities for people with disabilities to further participate in the workforce. Traditional barriers like a lack of accessible transportation and rigid working hours will become less vital to maintaining gainful employment. It is critical that the evolution of work includes, rather than excludes, people with disabilities to avoid further hindering their ability to fully participate in society.
State legislatures and governors in Maryland, Tennessee, Washington and in several other states have established policymaking processes within government institutions that ensure the disability community’s voice is represented as they tackle the future of work.
The ADA’s legacy continues to protect the rights of the millions of Americans living with a disability. While old stigmas have not vanished over the last 30 years, progress toward the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace and in society continues to march forward.
Josh Cunningham researches employment, labor and retirement issues for NCSL.
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