25 Years Later: Has ADA Helped Employees with Disabilities?

ada 25 yearsFive years ago, when I was still a labor writer for NBCNews.com, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Back then, I was lamenting the high unemployment rate among this group and the many cases of discrimination they faced.

On Sunday, July 26, 2015, the ADA marked its 25th anniversary, but how much has really changed?

This from one of my articles in 2010 on the topic:

The past 20 years since its enactment, disabled workers have made little progress when it comes to getting a level playing field in the workplace. 

“There’s still a considerable way to go,” said Jacqueline Berrien, then Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has seen its workload of disability discrimination cases swell in the past two decades.

The number of discrimination charges filed in 2009 hit a record 21,451, up from 17,000 a decade ago, according to EEOC data. And from 1993 through last year, charges spiked from 17.4 percent of all charges filed with the agency to 23 percent.

The unemployment rate nationally was 14.5 percent in 2009 for disabled workers, compared with 9 percent for non-disabled employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the participation rate — meaning those who were looking for work — among workers with disabilities was only 22 percent, compared to 71 percent for those without physical or mental problems.

Let’s look at those number today. This from a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last month:

In 2014, the unemployment rate was 12.5 percent, compared to 5.9 percent among those without disabilities, and the participation rate was 19.5 percent.

And EEOC charges have actually increased in the last five years, settling over 25,000 in 2014.

The playing field for employees with disabilities isn’t level, but one change that could help is a more flexible, adaptive workplace. In this area, employers still have some work to do.

According to research from a 2014 national study conducted by Families and Work Institute (FWI) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), U.S. employers are attuned to the needs of employees with disabilities when it comes to readjusting tasks when needed, but largely lack concerted efforts to attract and hire these employees.

While many conversations about employing people with disabilities focus on the physical changes needed to provide access to workplaces (e.g., ramps, elevators, specialized workspaces), procedural adjustments, such as greater workplace flexibility, are also useful tools for creating an environment where employees with disabilities can succeed.

The 2014 National Study of Employers’ (NSE) supplemental report, Including the Talents of Employees with Disabilities, found:

  • Small employers are more likely than large employers to offer five different kinds of workplace flexibility: to change starting and quitting times within some range of hours (33% vs. 20%), work some regular paid hours at home occasionally (11% vs. 4%), have control over when to take breaks (66% vs. 52%), return to work gradually after childbirth or adoption (52% vs. 36%) and take time off during the workday to attend to important family or personal needs without loss of pay (20% vs. 16%).
  • Eighty-four percent of employers who were asked if they would allow “employees with disabilities” to reallocate task assignment said yes.
  • Fifty-nine percent who were asked if they had formal staffing plans that included provisions for the hiring and retaining of people with disabilities said no.
  • Only 10% of employers have employee resource groups (ERGs) for employees with similar backgrounds or interests, causing a particular problem for employees with disabilities.

“Employers maintain a number of policies that support the inclusion of all employees, with and without disabilities. However, it appears that smaller employers are more likely than large employers to reinvent work for a broad array of employees. On the other hand, small employers are less likely to proactively consider how to do so compared to large organizations with formal opportunities for identifying why and how they can be more inclusive,” said Dr. Kenneth Matos, FWI’s senior director of research and author of the report.

The NSE report found that two human resource management techniques that could contribute to better applying the talents of all employees—including those with disabilities—were uncommon.

First, the fact that so few employers have employee resource groups reveals a missed opportunity to have employees with disabilities collaborate with one another and the organization to reinforce the value of workplace flexibility for themselves, for employees and for the organization’s bottom line. Organizations that can unify the efforts of employees to create more flexible and effective workplaces should be better able to develop solutions that benefit everyone.

Second, the 2014 NSE asked employers if they had formal staffing plans that included provisions for the hiring and retaining of people with disabilities. Overall, the responses broke down into three groups:

  • Thirty-nine percent had a formal plan that included such provisions;
  • 9% had a formal plan that did not include such provisions; and
  • 50% didn’t have any formal staffing plan.

There’s a lot employers can do to help improve the hiring of these individuals and also to make the workplace a better place for employees with disabilities.

Roxana Tocareva Photography_Deborah (7)FWI talked with Deb Dagit, a foremost expert on the topics of diversity and inclusion, founder of Deb Dagit Diversity LLC and former Chief Diversity Officer for Merck. Dagit, a member of FWI’s Board of Directors, also played a key role in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Below is an in-depth Q&A with Dagit, offering specific actions employers can take to help in this effort. And here’s a short video clip of Dagit answering this one pressing question:

What can employers do tomorrow to begin improving their efforts in hiring employees with disabilities?

Q & A

Q. Why do you think employers are still not doing a great job hiring employees with disabilities?

A. Many companies are still struggling to fully include people with disabilities in their recruitment efforts as well as to get people who already work for them to self identify and ask for what they need to be fully productive, like reasonable accommodations. And one of the reasons is—with all dimensions of diversity—it’s been difficult historically for companies to get things to happen inside their walls that are not happening outside their walls. The fact is that disability is still something that people have a tendency not to want to talk about outside the intimacy of their immediate family. Everyone struggles with this topic for various reasons.

So, what we need to do is to not to look at this as something foreign or exotic that’s going to require a completely different strategy. Look back at what you’ve already done with other dimensions of diversity and inclusion and adopt those same practices. We’ve done a great job over last two decades of making it much easier for colleagues from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to be out and proud at work. Many of those strategies will work very well for people with disabilities, including offering WIIFM (what’s in it for me). That would be a really good accommodation process and a sign that this is a customer segment you value and want to have inside your walls to inform your marketplace strategy. Do you have that messaging in place, and is it authentic?

Q. Why are smaller employers ahead of larger ones when it comes to providing different types of workflex?

A. In a smaller business, there really is a drive toward making the complex simple. In larger firms, for a variety of reasons, we tend to make the simple complex.

In larger firms, when it comes to bringing someone with a disability in, there’s all kinds of people who are concerned about that in some form or fashion, whether it’s legal attorneys or the people that work in safety or facilities or information technology. In a small firm, people wear multiple hats. They bring their personal relationships with friends and family who have disability with them to work, and they have creative and innovative ideas in how they can train and fully include a person with a disability in their workforce.

You often see very creative solutions—including small businesses that are actually set up to leverage the fact—that we know from Pew, Gallup and many other sources that most of us are more likely to frequent a business and its products or services if we know it’s disability inclusive. We’re very loyal and appreciative of companies that do a good job of including people with disabilities. And smaller firms have started to capitalize on that burnishment of their brand and their ability to attract and retain more customers.

Conservative estimates are that 50% of the U.S. population is touched directly or indirectly by a person with a disability, and we care if companies are being disability inclusive when we make our buying decisions.

Q. Why do most employers not have formal staffing plans for employees with disabilities? Is that something that’s necessary?

A. You would think after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act almost a quarter of a century ago, we would have seen some decline in the unemployment rate for people with disabilities. But, in fact, things have gotten worse, instead of better. And that’s why we now have Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that has an aspiration goal of 7%.

Why haven’t more talent acquisition organizations in companies done a good job of including disability in their hiring practices? Well, they just didn’t feel sufficiently compelled and also the issue of people believing myths about people with disabilities. Many people believe qualified talent is not out there; that they will not be able to rise to the same performance standards or requirements; that if you hire a person with a disability and there’s a performance issue, you won’t be able to address that performance issue. And yet, over and over again in research study after research study, actually quite the opposite is true.

Finally, we’re starting to see some breakthroughs. Companies like Walgreens, IBM, Lowe’s, Home Depot and many others are demonstrating that hiring people with disabilities—and not just a few, but upwards of 40% of a workforce—you actually get an amazing return on investment. Some of the return on investment that’s been demonstrated that is now causing people to affirmatively and positively recruit people with disabilities is lower safety issues, much better retention, higher productivity and higher employee engagement. And, overall for companies who are trying to manage margins and cost, this translates into businesses that are much more competitive. Now that these articles are starting to emerge and we have new compliance requirements for federal contractors, we’re starting to see the data that trumps conventional wisdom that people with disabilities won’t be great additions to the talent.

The other thing we’re coming to recognize, is that the Baby Boomers (which is a huge population globally) are aging into disability themselves; and they’re becoming strong advocates for children and grandchildren with disabilities who they would like to see able to fully participate in the workforce. This is another trend causing the whole paradigm or zeitgeist to shift around this topic. Guess what? Most executives in the companies are Baby Boomers, and they’ve suddenly gotten enlightened self-awareness, so that’s why we’re seeing a shift.

Q. Why do so few employers have employee resources groups for employees with disabilities? Is this something that’s needed?

A. Many organizations have employee resource groups (ERGs) and affinity networks for many dimensions of diversity and inclusion, including race, veterans, LGBT and some even interfaith, but late to the party is one for people with disabilities.

The reason for this is the same reason why people are incredibly reluctant to self identify. They think no good can come of it if they identify as a person with a disability because, historically, this has not been a population that’s been valued in the workforce. It stands to reason that if you’re afraid to even check a box despite assurances it’s going to be kept completely confidential that you’re a person who identifies as having a disability, you’re not going to take an additional step that says, not only am I going to self ID, but I’m going to be out and proud with my colleagues, my manager and my peers.

The recommendation I have for companies that have come to me with this dilemma who would like to have a disability employee resource group is to start with a disability advisory council (DAC). What is that? What you would do to form a DAC is go to the different functions within your business—information technology, facilities, legal, HR, anyone who is going to potentially touch the process of having an efficient and effective reasonable accommodations process. You want to invite people from these functions who have the ability both from a budget and staffing standpoint to be able to facilitate a quick response to a request for accommodations. Add to that team a few people with disabilities, hopefully from different business units and that represent different types of disability, including sensory (like hearing and vision), non apparent disability (such as metabolic conditions, attention deficient disorder and mental health challenges); and, of course, individuals with some sort of mobility impairment.

Usually, you can find a few individuals who are willing to support their company on a disability advisory council. That will usually organically lead to a disability ERG. I’ve done that at the companies I’ve worked for and helped many of my clients through that transition. It will also help you with a step of having a much more effective and efficient reasonable accommodations process.

The individuals from those different functions that are represented on the council will become increasingly more passionate and excited about their role in helping their colleagues. And they will take the time to become more and more knowledgeable about the process: what universal design principles look like for a facilities functions; what kind of great technology devices are out there for IT that can enable people with disabilities to fully participate; and how you can get around some of the safety concerns like an evacuation emergency preparedness plan for individuals with disabilities who are on upper floors.

All of these things start to come into focus and establish the momentum you need to have a really effective high functioning disability ERG.

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