20 Years Since the Passage of the ADA, Employment Disparities Remain

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), providing sweeping protections for those with disabilities. Just over 20 years later, the effects of this legislation are apparent in day-to-day life. Elevators are equipped with instructions in Braille; city buses and public buildings are designed to accommodate wheelchairs.

Among the most important protections of the ADA are those relating to employment. Today, employment notices almost universally come with promises that the employers will not discriminate on the basis of disability. Employers are expected to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

Although the ADA is the most well-known federal law addressing employment discrimination with regard to disabilities, it does not cover all employers and it is not the only law addressing such discrimination. In the context of employment, individuals with disabilities may be protected by four other federal laws.

  • The Rehabilitation Act: This act provides funding for a variety of disability-related purposes, such as training programs and independent living programs. Additionally, sections of the act prohibit disability-based employment discrimination by three types of employers - federal agencies, employers that contract with federal agencies and employers that receive federal financial assistance.
  • The Workforce Investment Act: Generally, this act consolidates federal job training and employment programs, thereby creating a system of career centers across the country. Any organization that receives federal funding under the WIA or that provides programs or activities as part of these career centers is prohibited from discriminating against those with disabilities.
  • The Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act: Employers that have federal contracts meeting particular criteria are required to provide equal employment opportunities for disabled veterans who meet particular criteria.
  • The Civil Service Reform Act: Most federal agencies are covered by this act, which contains provisions aimed at promoting fairness in personnel actions and preventing discrimination in employment based on disability.

Employees may have additional protections rooted in state laws. For example, the Florida Civil Rights Act also protects employees by prohibiting employment discrimination based on disability.

Ultimately all of these prohibitions on employment discrimination serve a single purpose: to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to employment opportunities. In some situations, an employer may be covered by several of these laws, while some smaller employers are not affected by any of these laws.

Certainly, these laws are a step in a positive direction. Preventing discrimination in hiring and requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations helps to ensure that people with disabilities are able to work.

Unfortunately, current unemployment statistics indicate that these laws do not go far enough. Unemployment rates among those with disabilities remain disproportionately high; a recent study by the National Organization on Disability indicates that only 21 percent of working-age people with disabilities are employed. Many people with disabilities who are fully capable of working are simply unable to find employment.

To coincide with the 20th Anniversary of the ADA, President Obama signed an executive order to hire an additional 100,000 federal employees with disabilities in the next five years. This, too, is a positive step toward providing employment opportunities, but this alone is not enough to address the current employment disparities. To truly ensure equal access to employment for those with disabilities, the government must take further measures.