Progress Report: the ADA and Employment

July 26th, 2005 marks the 15th anniversary of an important date in history – the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Since the passage of the ADA, people with disabilities report feeling less discrimination. But as far as ADA’s impact on jobs – the National Organization on Disability reports employment of people with disabilities has only risen from 32 to 35 percent in the past four years.

It is a tribute to Shepherd Center’s continuum of care that our return-to-work numbers are in fact much higher than the national average at 43 percent.

If we consider the national percentages, it would seem that the promise of the ADA has fallen a bit short. Given the robust economic expansion of the 1990s and advancements in technology, disability advocates expected a higher increase.

What explains the disappointing numbers? Some cite the rise in work-limiting impairments and chronic conditions within the overall population. Others argue that the easing of eligibility standards and increases in the relative benefits of Social Security disability programs (SSI and SSDI) are to blame.

While the ADA has not proved a panacea for this complex challenge, significant progress has been made. One of the most notable post ADA achievements is extended Medicare coverage (through the Ticket to Work program) of SSDI beneficiaries so employees can return to work without fear of losing health benefits. The program also expands Medicaid eligibility categories for certain working people with severe disabilities so that they can continue to receive benefits after their income or condition improves. As a result of this law, about half the states in the U.S. allow employed individuals to buy into Medicaid.

And to assist businesses in complying with the ADA, tax credits and tax deductions have been put into place. The establishment of a national Business Leadership Network in 34 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico is an additional resource.

But despite 15 years and the creation of incentives for job seekers and employers, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities remains unacceptably high. Why?

Although many employers express a willingness to employ people with disabilities, unspoken misconceptions about hiring and accommodation still exist. People with disabilities continue to be grossly underrepresented in the labor market, despite their desire and ability to work.

In general, barriers to employment fall into five categories:

1. Lack of Professional Networking Relationships
People with disabilities often face a unique challenge in cultivating strong professional networking relationships because they socialize less frequently with non-disabled peers. Because of the strong correlation between relationships and career opportunities, employers and people with disabilities must work harder to address this obstacle.

2. Lack of Information and Understanding
Employers are often still uncomfortable hiring people with disabilities because they lack experience, information and knowledge about providing reasonable accommodations. Many employers still believe the nature of work their company does cannot be performed by people with disabilities. In addition, they fear the cost of accommodations and potential legal expenses associated with the ADA.

3. Lack of Incentives and Experience
Many people with disabilities don’t return to work because they fear losing health insurance and worry that a lack of training and experience may make them less competitive in the workplace. While employers must do their part to address workers’ concerns about health insurance, job seekers must empower themselves to return to the workplace by attaining the job skills demanded by today’s workplace.

4. Lack of Collaboration
Currently employment and career education services for people with disabilities seldom share information and collaborate to make a difference, a huge area for potential improvement.

5. Lack of Access to Transportation
Lack of transportation is a persistent problem for people with disabilities who want to return to work. People with a disability are twice as likely to have inadequate transportation than are non-disabled people.

To remove these barriers, a number of diverse strategies are needed:

First, President Clinton’s Executive Order to hire 100,000 qualified individuals with disabilities as federal employees must be renewed.
In addition, the federal government must play a major role in ensuring health insurance for people with disabilities. By continuing to expand and strengthen incentives to enter the labor force, providing training for high-growth, high-earnings occupations, and assistance with placing workers in appropriate jobs, we can make significant strides.

People with disabilities are capable of thriving in the labor market, but until barrier removal becomes a top priority, unemployment of people with disabilities will remain high.

By Mark Johnson, Shepherd Center Director of Advocacy

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