Did you know that workforce diversity includes people with disabilities? July 26, 2020, marks the 30th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
All savvy employers should know by now that providing equal opportunities to people with disabilities simply makes good business sense. This is especially true in an interconnected, global economy. Unfortunately, not every company has gotten the message. As the ADA turns 30, there is good and bad news regarding people with disabilities (PWDs).
Two Bush Presidents
The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. This sweeping statute has opened the doors of inclusion and gainful employment to millions of citizens with disabilities nationwide, which has helped to boost business productivity. President Bush said in signing the law:
This historic act is the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities.
Voluntary compliance by all employers, however, still can’t be taken for granted, even though the ADA was passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan approval. The reality is that disability discrimination is still prevalent in modern society, from Wall Street to Main Street USA.
The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 was signed into law by President George W. Bush, following in his father’s footsteps. This law reversed several Supreme Court decisions which proved detrimental to equal opportunity for the disability community at large. To their collective credit, the two Presidents Bush understood the important principles and timeless moral obligations of America regarding disability equality across the board — despite ADA detractors within the GOP. Yets too many Republicans still oppose the ADA as an alleged unfair regulation on business.
Disability public policy should never fall prey to political partisanship by lawmakers or C-suite executives. Rather, disability policies, procedures, and practices should be strictly nonpartisan in nature. The large disability population represents a broad cross-section of society.
It’s worth pointing out to Republican critics of the ADA that it was President Ronald Reagan who espoused the “Big Tent” philosophy of inclusion across the political divide. Moreover, America’s longest-serving president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), was a person with a disability.
FDR had a physical disability and used a wheelchair, a fact for which younger generations might be unaware. FDR’s disability was often hidden from public view, in part to prevent the stigma of discriminatory attitudes. This occurred during an era prior to the commercialization and mass influence of television on public opinion. Yet, FDR’s unique ability and leadership qualities are what led America to persevere through, and ultimately overcome, the Great Depression. FDR’s famous “Fireside Chats” and other leadership examples proved instrumental in galvanizing America during a period of immense domestic upheaval.
What if the majority of American voters had rejected FDR based simply on his physical disability, rather than his overwhelming executive leadership skills and ability? If that had happened, who knows where America might be today.
FDR’s fortitude as an American president with a disability still serves as a powerful lesson to current lawmakers and corporate leaders nationwide, some of whom castigate disability rights and use it as a political wedge issue. Remember: workforce diversity includes people with disabilities.
It remains paradoxical that in the USA — a country founded on the bedrock principles of freedom and equality — qualified PWDs are still being denied the basic freedom to compete and advance on a level playing field, one without discriminatory barriers.
Narrow-minded companies only hurt themselves by excluding PWDs from employment. PWDs represent a vast pool of untapped talent.
But there’s good news too: many savvy and progressive employers have learned that leveraging the talents and abilities of PWDs helps maximize productivity and extend their reach to a diverse segment of consumers.
Recruiting, hiring, training, retaining, and advancing well-qualified employees with disabilities contributes to greater bottom-line productivity and profits. Being more inclusive should be of utmost importance to all employers in an increasingly diverse society. Nevertheless, a continuing stigma of disability bias is evidenced by a large number of discrimination cases against intransigent employers who reject voluntary compliance with the ADA.
The number of reported cases represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg, which is true for all types of discrimination and harassment.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — where I worked for many years as a career spokesman — received over 24,000 charges of disability discrimination in 2019, accounting for one-third of the total private sector caseload. The number of disability bias claims filed with the EEOC now exceeds those filed based on racial bias and sex discrimination. This persistent problem is magnified when accounting for the countless thousands of unreported incidents of disability discrimination in the employment context and all facets of society. The number of reported cases represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg, which is true for all types of discrimination and harassment. And while people with physical disabilities have made gains since the passage of the ADA, it’s a different story for people with mental disabilities (anxiety disorder, depression, etc.). All Americans must be vigilant to end the stigma of mental illness.
It’s hard to believe that three decades after the ADA’s enactment, PWDs continue to confront a plethora of unfounded myths, fears, and stereotypes about their ability to do the job. These biased attitudes preclude PWDs from reaching their full employment potential based on talent, ability, and merit, which should be the only criteria for making employment decisions.
Repeat: All applicants should be assessed on their talent, ability, and merit to do the job.
Let’s remember that disabilities affect people of every race, color, gender, religion, age and national origin, a large cross-section of the U.S. population. PWDs are our parents, spouses, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers and significant others.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of all Americans have a temporary or permanent disability. That equates to about 60 million citizens of all ages who represent a consumer base worth hundreds of billions of dollars. This is a colossal chunk of purchasing power in a global marketplace. Moreover, the percentage of Americans with disabilities has held steady over the years and may increase as Baby Boomers and Generation X continue to live longer thanks to cutting-edge technology and medical breakthroughs.
The disability population represents an integral segment of society which helps form the fabric of America. Further, there are a significant number of disabled veterans who bravely sacrificed their lives and limbs in military service to America. Some of the honorable organizations which represent them include Disabled Veterans of America (DAV), Disabled Veterans National Foundation, and Paralyzed Veterans of America. There’s also the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service at the U.S. Department of Labor. We must never forget about American veterans with disabilities.
Return on Investment
As noted above, too many companies are obstinate in hiring and reasonably accommodating employees with disabilities. But employers should also consider the return on investment (ROI), or the business case for disability employment. According to a well-cited study by the Employment and Disability Institute of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations:
- 87 percent: consumers who responded to a survey who said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they would prefer to give their business to companies that employ people with disabilities.
- 92 percent: survey respondents who said they were “more favorable” or “much more favorable” toward companies that hire people with disabilities.
- 57 percent: employers who provided cost information related to disability-based accommodations said the accommodations needed by employees cost absolutely nothing.
- 36 percent: employers who said they experienced a one-time cost in accommodating employees with disabilities.4 percent: employers who said the accommodation resulted in an ongoing, annual cost to the company.
- $500: the typical one-time expenditure by employers who provided a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability.
- 600 percent: employers who provided internships to people with disabilities were nearly six times more likely to hire those individuals.
- 500 percent: companies with a strong senior management commitment to disability issues were five times more likely to hire people with disabilities.
New and evolving cost-effective technologies are available to accommodate many employees with disabilities based on their specific essential job functions. Additionally, some disability accommodations, like alternate schedules and flexible work, cost nothing at all. Telework (remote work or telecommuting) on a regular or periodic basis, for example, saves money for employers and reduces environmental degradation inherent with gas-guzzling commutes. Remote work is also key to contingency planning by companies, as the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated.
Employees with disabilities also tend to work smarter and harder because of the high hurdles they must overcome to secure gainful employment. PWDs highly value their jobs.
As America commemorates the 30th birthday of the ADA, let’s recall that disability discrimination has no place in the workplace or any other place. Yet three decades after passage of the landmark law, people with disabilities are too often treated as second class citizens. This must end ASAP. The fact is that qualified job applicants with disabilities can be found everywhere in every industry. Closely coordinating with disability advocacy groups, like the American Association of People with Disabilities (and others listed above), is a good first step to open the clogged pipeline.
It really shouldn’t matter where employee talent derives. Ability is what counts most.
Again, disability employment is all about ability, skills, talent, and merit — rather than unfounded myths, fears, and stereotypes. It is, therefore, incumbent for corporate leadership to send a clear message from the top-down that diversity and inclusion make good business sense, including hiring qualified people with disabilities based on merit. It’s not enough for the HR staff or mid-level managers to put the word out. That’s because when the message is forcefully communicated from the very top of the company, it has a higher likelihood of being followed down the organizational chart. It really shouldn’t matter where employee talent derives. Ability is what counts most. Moreover, PWDs should never be ruled out categorically by employers for unlawful and immoral reasons.
Lastly, the fundamental principle of equal opportunity and equal justice for all represents the very essence of the American Dream. This principle is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which states that all individuals have “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…” That includes people with disabilities.