Happy Birthday, ADA!

ADA, Disability Rights
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hbdayThe Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by George H. W. Bush 25 years ago, on July 26, 1990. For many people, it was just another day, but it was a very different day for those with disabilities. It was the first federal legislation providing employment rights for most Americans with disabilities.

But since then, has the ADA made a difference for disabled employees?

What the Law Provides

Because of the ADA, the disabled have a legal right not to be discriminated against by employers with 15 or more employees (state laws often cover smaller employers). People with disabilities who can perform the essential functions of a job cannot be discriminated against in hiring, terms and conditions of employment, layoff, or termination, and employers must grant an employee’s reasonable request for an accommodation unless it poses an undue hardship.

The Road to Enactment

Like other federal civil rights legislation, it was a long, difficult struggle before the law was passed, according to the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. The ADA was not the first law providing employment rights to Americans with Disabilities.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (or Rehab Act) laid the groundwork for the ADA, and much of its language was modeled on the Rehab Act. Section 504 of the law prohibited discrimination based on disability by those receiving federal funds.

  • The language of Section 504 was modeled after earlier laws banning discrimination based on race, ethnic origin, and sex by federal fund recipients.
  • The Rehabilitation Act marked a change in the outlook of the federal government toward those with disabilities. Instead of looking at the problems that disabled people face (such as unemployment and lack of education) as inevitable consequences of their limitations due to the disability, Congress recognized that these issues were the result of societal barriers and prejudices.
  • As with earlier laws helping racial minorities and women, Congress understood that a law was needed to help end discriminatory policies and practices.

wheelchairThe ADA, as we know it today, went through numerous drafts, revisions, negotiations, and amendments since the first version was introduced in 1988. The version introduced in 1989 eventually became law. As part of the process, there were numerous congressional committee meetings and hearings. The testimony included the following anecdotes:

  • A young woman with cerebral palsy talked about a local movie theater that would not let her see a movie because of her disability. When her mother telephoned the theater to protest that her treatment “sounded like discrimination,” the theater owner replied, “I don’t care what it sounds like.”
  • A Vietnam veteran paralyzed during the war who came home in a wheelchair stated that after he returned home, he couldn’t get out of his housing project, on the bus, or off the sidewalk because of inaccessibility. He also couldn’t get a job because of discrimination.
  • A woman testified that after she lost a breast to cancer, she also lost her job and couldn’t find a new one because of her history of cancer.
  • Parents whose child died of AIDS testified that they couldn’t find any undertaker who would bury their child.

The ADA’s “Results”

One of the goals of the ADA was to improve employment opportunities for those with disabilities. With opportunities to get hired and promoted, it was hoped the incomes and lives of Americans with disabilities would get better. Whether that has actually happened is unclear, though there are many individuals whose lives have clearly been improved by the ADA.

Though the employment provisions of the ADA have provided additional rights to the disabled, there are many obstacles to full employment, according to NPR. By its estimates, from 1990 to 2013, those with a work limitation now are earning less ($36,400 to $30,600 per year), are less likely to be employed (from a 28.4% to a 14.4% employment rate), and more likely to live in poverty (27.5% to 32.1% of the population). In 2013, those without work limitations had an employment rate five times higher, their income was more than double, and the poverty rate was about a third of those who had work limitations.

NPR states that possible reasons for the economic hardships that many employable people with disabilities face are as follows:

  • employers may fear that disabled employees may sue them if accommodations aren’t made,
  • it can be difficult to get reliable and efficient transportation,
  • those with disabilities are less likely to complete high school and college, and
  • those who collect Social Security disability payments and have Medicare care lose that income and health care coverage when they earn too much money.

Though the overall outlook for those with disabilities may seem bleak, the ADA is a powerful tool to help disabled individuals obtain and keep jobs.

  • An employer cannot simply decide not to hire someone because of a disability; that person has to be judged just as nondisabled applicants are.
  • If an employee is disabled due to an accident or illness, reasonable accommodations must be considered before he or she is simply shown the door.
  • If layoffs need to be made, an employer cannot legally put disabled employees on the top of the list of those losing their jobs.

Summing It Up

The ADA, like other civil rights laws, was passed because of the efforts of thousands of people. If you’ve been discriminated against because of a disability, or if your employer perceives you as being disabled or thinks you’re disabled because of your association with someone with a disability, you should contact our office so we can discuss your situation and your rights. Violations of the law could include the following:

  • asking improper questions about your health during the job application process;
  • failing to accept a reasonable accommodation so you can do your job, whether that’s making a physical change to the workplace or changing how your work is structured or scheduled;
  • paying you less than co-workers because of your disability or to paying you less to defray the supposed costs of an accommodation;
  • retaliating against you for requesting an accommodation or complaining of discrimination; or
  • firing or laying you off because your disability is seen as making you less productive than you need to be.

If you’re disabled and being discriminated against, if you won’t fight for your rights, who will?