The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed 32 years ago, but challenges remain

Some advocates urge HR departments to go beyond ADA compliance and embrace inclusion for disabled workers.
article cover

Rudzhan Nagiev/Getty Images

· 3 min read

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

Our HR newsletter delivers need-to-know industry news and insights to HR pros every weekday for free.

July 26 marks the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which former President George H. W. Bush signed into law to enshrine, for the first time, protection from discrimination for disabled people.

Despite this, disabled people still face barriers at work—including unconscious bias, inaccessibility in digital and physical spaces, and discrimination—that, data suggests, have in part resulted in their experiencing higher rates of unemployment and poverty, and earning lower wages than nondisabled peers.

Real impacts. According to the EEOC, the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled people when assigning jobs and determining pay, or when employees assert their rights. Employers must also provide accommodations to make the work environment accessible to disabled job applicants and employees.

When asked about the impact of the ADA on her workplace experience, Sheri Byrne-Haber, senior staff architect of accessibility tech at VMware, told HR Brew that it has empowered her to ask for the accessibility tools she needs. “Before the ADA, life was complicated,” she explained on LinkedIn. “I largely tried to hide the fact that I was disabled when I was younger—I was already a young female in a world predominated by men and didn’t want to stand out any more than I did. I worked with someone who was deaf who largely did the same.”

Discrimination remains. Disability-related workplace complaints were the second most-common discrimination complaint filed to the EEOC in 2020, and according to data published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, job candidates who disclose their disability are less likely to receive interest from employers.

Looking ahead. While discrimination continues to be part of the narrative for the disabled community, there may be some reason for hope. The pandemic-fueled shift to remote work provided new opportunities to disabled workers who had been previously left out of the workforce or required to disclose their disability status. Advocates hope flexible work options will continue to be considered reasonable accommodations for disabled professionals.

Advocates also hope to see more HR professionals go beyond the letter of the law and make their workplaces more inclusive. As Rebecca Cokley, disability activist and disability-rights program officer at the Ford Foundation, told HR Brew in February, this will require HR to stop thinking about the ADA through the lens of compliance.

“This is a moment to address not just the inequities of this current class of employees, but over 30 years of inequities facing disabled employees,” she said. “And thinking about why, for other employees…we engage [in] conversations around performance and success, but not for disabled employees.”—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

Our HR newsletter delivers need-to-know industry news and insights to HR pros every weekday for free.