Twenty-Five Years of Changing Attitudes

I was optimistic about the direction the field of disability was taking when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed. I had spent a year arguing with my brother-in-law who belonged to an organization that was actively lobbying against the ADA. He was convinced that the ADA would be the death of the small business that employed him. Our arguments were heated and often led to me saying things such as, “We’re all only temporarily able-bodied. You should be helping to create an environment you’d want to live in if you became disabled.” I felt I had won that argument when the ADA passed and his company continued business as usual.

About 15 years ago, that brother-in-law had an accident and became disabled. Now when we are together, he smiles at me each time he can press a door button and have it stay open while he enters the building. We exchange glances when we enter a theater and there’s a place for him to sit or when a ramp allows him to avoid stairs that are almost impossible for him to navigate. “Thank goodness for the ADA,” he will whisper to me.

I celebrate the successes. The ADA has created more accessible communities, but my optimism about what it would do for employment has faded. I started my career in 1978 when I received my Master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling. I expected that the 1978 Amendments of the Rehabilitation Act that prohibited discrimination by the federal government would trickle down and people with disabilities would be fully integrated into American life, meaning that the employment rate would increase. It didn’t. Twelve years later, the ADA passed.

By the first anniversary of the ADA, I realized that legislation won’t get people employed. While the ADA has been instrumental in removing barriers, and access to education, transportation, housing, and community living has improved, employment numbers remain stubbornly low. 

Very recently, thirty-seven years after I graduated, I heard the first bit of positive news about employment from Dr. Andrew Houtenville, Associate Professor of Economics and Research Director at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. “Growth in employment for both people with and without disabilities has been pretty positive over the past few months, although more so for people with disabilities, which is the first time I have ever seen this occur in a sustained fashion,” said Dr. Houtenville, after reviewing the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Jobs Report released Friday, June 5.  The growth was 0.8 percentage points—not much, but we celebrate when we can.

When I was a working rehabilitation counselor, citing legislation did nothing to promote the employment outcomes for my clients. Changing the attitude of the potential employer made the difference. When the employer was convinced that the person with a disability made business sense, that person was hired.  And so it continued. One employer at a time. And after all this legislation and 25 years after the ADA, it still comes down to changing employer attitudes.

Twelve years ago, I became an employer and was able to practice what I’d been teaching. About 20 percent of New Editions Consulting’s employees have disabilities. We are a profitable company and we have received awards from The Washington Post, Washingtonian magazine, and Virginia Business magazine for our workplace culture.

There is research to support that hiring people with disabilities contributes to a company’s success. A large number of Americans say they prefer to patronize businesses that hire people with disabilities. We need to get that information to all employers.

Some large companies recognize this and are excellent employers of people with disabilities. They realize that the small cost associated with accommodations is more than balanced by the benefits of having employees with better than average attendance and lower turnover rates.

Last year, New Editions was contracted by the US Business Leadership Network® (USBLN) and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) to build the website and database for the Disability Equality Index (DEI). The DEI is a national, transparent benchmarking tool that offers businesses an opportunity to receive an objective score, on a scale of zero to 100, on their disability inclusion policies and practices. The 2014 DEI was completed by 80 Fortune 1000-size companies in early 2015. A total of 43 companies scored an 80 or above. I’m hopeful that more large companies will learn of the DEI and recognize the contributions that people with disabilities can make to their organizations.

I was struggling to find an ending to this blog. I didn’t want to sound pessimistic about the impact of the ADA, because it has brought significant change and access, but I wanted to relay my disappointment with the employment numbers. Then I read an email from one of our newest employees about his perceptions on the ADA.

Doug Zak said, “I also feel that people with disabilities, and not laws, must be the ones to change perceptions of people with disabilities. I try to do this every day by doing the best job I possibly can, participating in group situations as much as possible, and being out in the community communicating with other people so that they may see that I am really just like them in so many ways. In this way I hope to promote diversity in the workplace and community and help people overcome their initial skepticism toward people with disabilities. I am so thankful to have found a job with New Editions, a company that appreciates and promotes workplace diversity and provides an understanding and caring environment where I can advance my career goals.”

Doug, I and all our employees—some who have disabilities, some with parents, children and spouses who have disabilities—will celebrate this 25th anniversary, serving as a model of a successful, profitable, award winning company to convince others companies that diversity pays. We will celebrate. And we will change attitudes. One employer at a time.

Shelia Newman, President, New Editions Consulting, Inc. has over 25 years of experience in Federal government contracting.