By: Carol Glazer and Jesse Fryburg, National Organization on Disability
Authors’ Note: This essay was originally featured on diversityinc.com, and has been updated for this publication.
On July 26, 1990, the president of the United States looked into a television camera on the South Lawn of the White House and proclaimed that the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) "signals the end to the unjustified segregation and exclusion of persons with disabilities from the mainstream of American life." Twenty-eight years later, it has not.
The keystone of the American ethos is that anyone, through work and perseverance, can achieve success. We believe in bootstraps and self-efficacy; beliefs which have guided our public policies and formed the fabric of our culture. Here, you get what you earn.
Americans with disabilities are no different. We want no special treatment, only the opportunity to work and strive for success. And while the ADA has helped close many gaps, employment is not one of them. The current labor force participation rate of working-age people with disabilities in the United States is 21 percent, compared to 68 percent for those without a disability. By extension, Americans with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty. How do we explain this?
There is certainly still stigma surrounding disability, but many of the other fears employers have about hiring from this talent pool simply don’t exist in reality. According to the Jobs Accommodations Network, nearly 60% of all workplace accommodations cost nothing at all, and most others cost under $500. Companies that hire employees with disabilities also generally report boosts in overall employee engagement, among other benefits. The rationale against disability employment, it seems, exist mostly in our imaginations. It’s high time that we all looked closer—at Americans with disabilities as a talent pool, but mostly at ourselves, and our own assumptions and biases.
One of the great ironies of humanity is that, although we are fascinated by difference, it is very difficult for us to understand. For instance, those of us who can see rely so heavily on our vision that it is difficult to fathom how a blind person can do the same things we can, and there are myriad other examples. The surprise that people register when seeing individuals with disabilities working and navigating the world strongly suggests that disabilities continue to be erroneously equated to deficits, rather than merely differences. This is an error made to great societal detriment.
As a result, we as a society often fall prey to the tyranny of low expectations, leading to euphemisms like special and exceptional to describe people. And although this language sounds benevolent, it is detrimental in practice. People with disabilities don't want to be held to a different standard. We can—and want—to do the same jobs at the same levels and for the same pay as anyone else; we just occasionally get there in different ways.
The ADA has removed a great number of barriers for people with disabilities, but not all steps can be bridged with ramps, and not all walls toppled with hammers. We are the carriers and arbiters of our culture, and it is upon each of us to consider the ways that we think about, talk about and interact with people with disabilities. Are we afraid of difference, or can we embrace it as strength? Because until every American is allowed to realize their full potential, none of us will.
For companies looking to build and fortify cultures of inclusion, become more innovative, and access the diverse, capable, and largely untapped disability talent pool, the National Organization on Disability might be able to help you achieve your business objectives. We hope to hear from you.
Hamilton Lombard, Demographics Researcher UVA