In case you missed it, on July 26, 2020, the nation observed the 30th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Therefore, this is a good time to remind companies about the moral and business imperatives for advancing equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
Disability employment is a persistent problem nationwide, despite broad efforts by the federal government and civil rights groups to promote voluntary compliance.
People with disabilities are less likely to be employed than non-disabled individuals, and “workers with a disability earn 66 cents for every dollar than those with no disability earn,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Moreover, “workers with a disability make up just 6 percent of working adults.” The main reason for the gaping disparities: employment discrimination against people with disabilities who are qualified, ready, willing, and able to work. It’s shameful that disability discrimination is still pervasive in the workplace three decades after the ADA’s enactment. This applies to recruitment, hiring, retention, training, advancement, as well as other terms and conditions of employment.
Disability discrimination charges filed by aggrieved individuals with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) account for one-third of the agency’s private sector caseload. Moreover, disability cases are now the second most frequently filed discrimination charge with the EEOC, eclipsing discrimination based on race and sex (which had historically been the leading categories for decades).
Retaliation is the leading charge filing with the EEOC, accounting for over half of the agency’s caseload. Retaliation cases often intersect with other bases and issues of discrimination, such as sexual harassment, pregnancy, race, age, national origin, etc.
The EEOC has posted a special web page in commemoration of the ADA’s 30th birthday — an excellent information resource. The bottom line message for employers to consider is this: People with disabilities represent a vast pool of untapped talent who can positively contribute to business success and enhance workplace diversity. All they need is an equal opportunity.
I previously spoke with Christopher J. Kuczynski, a subject matter legal expert on disability discrimination and related issues. We discussed disability awareness and what companies need to know. Chris is a former longtime Assistant Legal Counsel for the EEOC, who headed the ADA Policy Division. He is now the Deputy General Counsel with the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency focused on disability equality in accessibility and design in the public and private sectors.
An EEOC veteran attorney, Chris served as Associate Director for the White House Domestic Policy Council in 2003–2004. He played an instrumental role in writing some of the EEOC’s most important ADA rules, regulations and policy guidance for over two decades. I had the pleasure of working closely with Chris over many years during my tenure as a career spokesman for the EEOC. Employers nationwide would be wise to heed the advice below from Chris, especially if they want to foster discrimination-free work environments based on talent, merit, and ability.
My prior conversation with Chris is presented below in a Question & Answer (Q&A) topical format.
Diversity & Disability
DG: Can you explain the importance of why the employer community should pay attention to disability issues?
CK: One of the things I have emphasized is that disability should be part of the model of diversity that is so important in the workplaces of America today. I don’t think disability has become fully incorporated into the notion of diversity, in which disability is seen as a real positive value in the workplace. This is an opportunity to remind people of why it should be.
Even though disability is still an issue for companies 30-years after the passage of the ADA, I think more employers are aware of it in ways they have certainly not been prior to the ADA.
Disability has become a larger part of the modern business model. One of the things that may still be a struggle for employers of any size is the concept of reasonable accommodation. Some employers may have concerns about the cost of accommodations, although studies show this cost is not great.
DG: According to a well-cited study by Cornell University, the cost of accommodating an employee with a disability is only about $500 on average — and the return on investment is much higher per productivity gains. Do employers know that?
CK: The studies are out there and available to employers. I think many large employers are familiar with the $500 figure. However, in addition to dollars and cents costs, companies might also be thinking about how difficult or disruptive the accommodation process could be to the operation of their business. Reasonable accommodation requires employers to do things differently from the way in which they would normally do them, in order to provide equal employment opportunities. A reasonable accommodation is something employers may grapple with because it requires a response to individualized needs that people with disabilities may have.
Rules & Regulations
DG: Do enough employers know the rules, regulations, and responsibilities involved in providing reasonable accommodations, three decades after the ADA became law?
CK: I think many employers do know about the ADA’s rules and regulations, but certainly there are some that don’t. There are a number of resources available for companies where they can learn more, including the websites of the EEOC and the Access Board. Both federal agencies regularly provide the business community with technical assistance, online information updates, and other outreach. The EEOC also has small business liaisons among its 50 field offices nationwide. Sometimes it’s not so much that employers don’t know how to comply with the ADA — or even have policies in place — but there could be problems in communicating those policies so they’re filtering down to supervisory officials who must make day-to-day decisions about accommodations. A reasonable accommodation is just a simple request for a change that’s needed because of a medical condition.
Leadership from the Top
DG: How important is it in corporate America for CEOs to communicate the message that workforce diversity includes people with disabilities, rather than only the HR department or just putting information in employee handbooks?
What leadership from the top should also mean is that it becomes part of the accountability for managers and front-line supervisors.
CK: It’s critically important for the message to filter down from the very top of the organization. That’s because even the best workforce may not be committed to any type of project until employees believe executive leaders and managers are committed to it. This includes disability hiring and diversity. What leadership from the top should also mean is that it becomes part of the accountability for managers and front-line supervisors. That is, performance should be assessed in part on whether hiring managers or others within the organization are evaluating diversity when it comes to disability and other protected statuses. Leadership from the top comes with accountability for officials who implement these policies and practices. This includes outreach to the disability community and working closely with advocacy groups to implement and/or revise policies and procedures that make good business sense. Some candidates have all the qualifications that an employer requires; however, what’s standing in the way is myths, fears, and stereotypes.
DG: What are some of the specific myths, fears, and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities that are still prevalent today in the employer community?
CK: It could be as simple as thinking that a person with a disability can’t do the job because the person will be an unproductive employee. There could be fundamental misconceptions, for instance, that a disability translates into an inability to think and work productively.
There could also be myths, fears, and stereotypes by employers about safety in the workplace. Some employers still may have negative attitudes and misperceptions related to those with a history of mental health conditions.
Companies may think a person with mental illness automatically means an elevated risk regarding threats of violence in the workplace. But that’s simply wrong. The safety risks associated with mental disabilities are no greater than those associated with the population generally. Safety concerns also occur due to some physical conditions, not only mental impairments. The benefits of increased disability employment include expanding a company’s consumer base, added perspective in decision making, and greater return on investment—all of which contribute to bottom-line productivity.
DG: Thank you, Chris. I want to reiterate that as America commemorates the 30th anniversary of the ADA, this is a good time for employers to refocus on advancing equal opportunities for people with disabilities, in addition to fostering a discrimination-free workplace for all people.
This article appeared on The Good Men Project and is featured here with author permission.