Is the 24 year old Americans with Disabilities Act all grown up?
If the ADA were a person, it should be graduating college by now and looking for a job. However, workplace equality for people with disabilities is where the least progress has been made in the last quarter century, according to an informal poll of webinar attendees during “24 Years of the ADA: Progress, Pitfalls and Possibilities” hosted by Cornell University and the Northeast ADA Center on July 9, 2014. Where has the most progress been made? According to attendees polled, it is in the accessibility of physical spaces. Examine your workplace and you’ll find evidence of both. Are there accessible entranceways and accessible signs? Sure. How many of your co-workers have disabilities? Is the number representative of the population? Odds are it’s not even close.
But what would our ADA ‘graduate’ have learned in college? I was once told that disability access was covered in a one hour lecture during a seven year architecture degree. And architecture is where the ADA is doing well. Talking to professors, it’s the same or worse in other fields. Can you complete a business degree and not learn about equity and diversity of the people you’ll be hiring and managing? Sure. Can you complete a computing degree and not learn that some of your potential end-users won’t be able to see? Sure. Where I work we still get people coming to the IT accessibility office with astonishment: “What do you mean, this needs to be accessible!?”
Our metaphorical ADA ‘graduate’ is going into a workforce where the employment rate for people with disabilities has been unchanged or declining since the ADA was born. It’s a paradox that continues to perplex the disability field. The ADA was meant to improve employment for people with disabilities, and yet the numbers still decline.
In the wider cultural context, disability is no longer the awkward topic it once was. In the business organization context, however, we find there is still more than ample room for improvement. We can easily find problems at the macro and micro level. The internal and external policy documents won’t tell you this, but the operational norm in most organizations is still to treat disability access and equity as an extra thing to do, or something to be avoided if possible, rather than something that is an integral part of everyday business-as-usual.
So, what can you do to help improve the disability culture in your organization? If you work in the IT field, you could easily spot-check IT accessibility in your organization. Does your organization’s website work for people who are blind? Can you log in to your time and attendance system using the keyboard only? Are there captions on the training videos for your department? How does this reflect your broader workplace culture?
There are two options for our (still-growing-up) ADA ‘graduate’ going into the workforce now:
Option 1: Spot-check all aspects of the workplace and how they do or do not link together. Ask questions. Be a go-getter. Identify areas for improvement.
Option 2. Be timid. Let things go on as they are. Don’t make waves. Maintain business-as-usual.
The ADA is just a law, of course. What makes the ADA fail in the workplace? The people who make up the workplace. What makes the ADA succeed in the workplace? The people who make up the workplace. To learn more about incorporating employees with disabilities into the workplace, visit Disability.gov’s employment section.
The ADA still has a lot of growing up to do. Let’s help it along.
Chris Law, PhD, is a Senior Accessibility Analyst with expertise in organizational behavior, corporate culture and disability. He has over 20 years of experience in IT accessibility, Section 508 and universal design.