After 25 Years, Is the Americans with Disabilities Act Protecting Workers?

by Katie Tracy

August 03, 2015

July 26 marked the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal civil rights legislation that protects the rights of people with disabilities to participate in and contribute to society, including the right to join the workforce.

Over the past quarter-century, the law has undoubtedly improved the lives of many Americans, but challenges remain, most notably with respect to equal employment opportunities. As U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez aptly wrote in his statement on the anniversary, “While we celebrate the courage of the trailblazers who made the ADA possible and mark the momentous progress of the last 25 years, we must also be resolute about meeting the challenges that remain. Employment remains the unfinished business of the ADA.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest employment figures, 12.5 percent of people with disabilities were unemployed in 2014, meaning they had no job, although they were available and actively seeking work within the four weeks prior to the BLS survey. For individuals without a disability, the unemployment rate was much lower at 5.9 percent.

So, why is the unemployment rate so much higher for people with disabilities than for those without? In part, the answer seems to be that some employers are discriminating against workers with disabilities in hiring decisions, potentially because they fear being sued, have concerns about the cost of providing accommodations, or have concerns about impacts to worker safety. However, according to the Baltimore Sun, many companies that have instituted policies to hire disabled workers, such as Walgreen’s, have since discovered that such concerns were unfounded in practice.

Another employment challenge centers on a push for finding individuals with disabilities jobs in integrated workplaces alongside people without disabilities that pay at least the minimum wage. Right now, many people with disabilities work in sheltered workshops—work centers offering work programs to adults with disabilities—and they are paid far below minimum wage. Some advocates warn against shutting down sheltered workshops completely because they say the programs can provide a support network for workers with disabilities, and offer assistance that extends far beyond job performance. However, advocates in support of integrated employment  say it offers an opportunity to diversify workplaces and provides individuals with disabilities full access to workplace benefits.

While these employment challenges remain unsolved 25 years after the ADA’s enactment, efforts to address them are already underway. In President Obama’s statement on the 25th anniversary of the ADA, he highlighted several recent and forthcoming actions to improve opportunities for Americans with disabilities. Notably, on July 23, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and U.S. Department of Justice entered into a memorandum of understanding to enhance coordination on investigating disability discrimination complaints and to enhance interagency collaboration on guidance, outreach, and training. The Administration will also be developing new informational materials to help Americans with disabilities learn more about available programs that offer assistance with job searches and about the federal government hiring process.

In line with the move away from sheltered workshops, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), enacted in 2014, seeks to expand opportunities for integrated employment, especially for youth with disabilities. The law requires state agencies to provide pre-employment transition services to youth with disabilities to ensure they can obtain integrated jobs that pay above minimum wage.

Although it will take time to implement the changes necessary to reduce unemployment and expand job opportunities for workers with disabilities, it doesn’t have to take 25 more years.

Tagged as: ADA civil rights
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Also from Katie Tracy

Katie Tracy, J.D., joined CPR as a workers’ rights policy analyst in May 2015. Her previous experience includes working for more than two years as a regulatory policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, where she advocated for strong regulations to protect health, safety, and the environment.

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