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The ADA 30 years on

The ADA 30 years on

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This week marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights law protecting individuals with disabilities, and an excellent time to reflect on what this important piece of legislation means.

As I reviewed various posts and blogs about the anniversary, I saw two major trends – one of celebration and one of reflection. Both perspectives are right on the mark.  The ADA has improved the lives of many individuals with disabilities; however, many workers still contend with under- employment, discrimination, and accessibility challenges and many employers still struggle with compliance.

Accommodation: The heart of the ADA

Thirty years ago, I started my first full-time job at Easter Seals as a traumatic brain injury vocational specialist. That same month, the ADA was signed into law so I have never experienced work without this legal framework guiding employers to do the right thing:  Eliminate disability discrimination, make buildings accessible, and make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities. As with any civil rights movement, there were many years of strife.

Over the years, I’ve seen first hand how accommodations work for both employers and employees, creating  many win-win scenarios including:

  • A diabetic warehouse worker was placed on a consistent shift instead of rotating night and day shifts so that he could follow a standard schedule to manage his blood sugars.
  • Two friends both with spina bifida got jobs at the same daycare center because one helps the other with personal needs.
  • An insurance processor with bilateral carpal tunnel used dragon dictate to overcome typing limitations and to continue processing health claims.
  • An obese woman was provided a big and tall ergonomic chair to extend her sitting capacity so she could work her full shift.
  • A woman with anxiety was gradually returned to her job after a period of leave, she also had performance issues so retraining, clear expectations, and work goals were established with both her and her supervisor.
  • A truck driver returning to work after shoulder surgery was provided with a pneumatic hand truck to reduce the push, pull, and carrying demands.
  • An office worker with allergies and sensitivities was provided with a closed office and a clean air filter.
  • An office worker with a broken ankle that resulted in nerve damage was allowed to return to work on part-time basis while still recovering.
  • A manager was allowed to work from home while recovering from back surgery.

Compliance a top priority for employers

Individuals with disabilities are an integral part of our society. Despite medical advances, America today still has an overall disability rate of 12.6% for the total civilian, non-institutionalized population according to the 2018 American Community Survey from the Census Bureau.

In my current role in Buck’s Time Off, Disability and Life group, compliance with the ADA remains a top priority for employers. The EEOC also remains committed to assisting employers and employees in understanding their obligations and rights under the Act and also enforces the law when needed. In 2019, the EEOC received 24,238 charges of disability discrimination and collected $116 million in various types of monetary relief.

There are many resources available to help employers find accommodations solutions and comply with the law including:

Compliance can be complex, but there are proven strategies that can help teams balance employee accommodations and workplace demands. Here are a few tips:

  • Train managers on ADA and the interactive process
  • Keep decisions related to performance and requests for accommodation separate
  • Start the interactive process if you have knowledge that the employee needs an accommodation
  • Do not ask for more medical information than is allowed and keep all information confidential
  • Communicate with employees and document all interactions and decisions
  • Manage accommodations over time
  • Conduct the interactive process in good faith; managers need to be responsive, respectful, and detailed oriented when engaging in the process
  • Do not be afraid to try an accommodation to see if it will be effective

Opportunities for the future

The use of technology is predicted to drive solutions in all aspects of employment from recruitment and onboarding to training. The expansion of Universal Design into workplace processes will eliminate the need for some accommodations. The opportunity to develop new technologies with accommodation requirements will magnify accessibility capability and inclusion. Specific technologies to be used in products and services include extended reality technology (XR) or virtual reality, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and smart glasses, and machine learning.

With the 30th anniversary of ADA, there are many more inspiring success stories available online. One of the most heart-felt stories showcased the struggle to pass the ADA – a story about the Capitol crawl depicting an eight-year-old girl crawling up the steps of the Capitol. Who could read about that and not feel overwhelmed and grateful that the ADA was passed?

So, let’s take a moment to ponder the struggles, celebrate the successes of the last 30 years of ADA, and prepare to shape a brighter future for the American workforce as we build on the ADA and promote equal access and opportunities for all.