Thirty for Thirty on the ADA
As we near the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act I’ve decided to post thirty short essays about the law, the anniversary, and the cultural impact of #ADA @30. I’m doing this as a disabled person who’s lived half his life before the ADA. I’m reflecting on the “before and after” of the law.
Essay Five: “Outside the Box”
If you love something, love it well even as you know its faults. I love the ADA but I also know its wishy washy like an uncle who ignores bigotry right in front of the kids because it’s a hard life.
I know you know what I mean. The ADA hasn’t exactly delivered on jobs for the disabled though it’s not really the old fella’s fault and tomorrow’s another day.
While we don’t really know how many disabled people remain unemployed a generally accepted statistic holds that the figure is around 70%. Now you might ask “70 % of what?” and then you might be surprised to learn that no one knows how many people with disabilities there are in the United States. We have to estimate. The estimate says the number is one in five Americans. The estimation game goes on: we judge two thirds of this phantasmal number are people over 65. Remember, we don’t know this. We’re guessing. I first learned about the imprecision statistic business when I tried to find out how many blind people there are in the US. The number is fungible, inexact, made up. Census takers went door to door in Baltimore and asked people if they could read a standard newspaper. From this a number was hatched. In turn that guess became a national model. Voila. There were one million blind people in the United States. Two thirds were over 65. Believe it or not these numbers are still often cited. They come from the old game: “how many fingers am I holding up?”
With a tip of the hat to Arthur James Balfour there are three kinds of falsehoods: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But there’s a fourth: the guesstimate. Now before you imagine I’m going to argue for a national database of the disabled let me be clear that disability is your own business and laws protecting privacy are essential in a free society. In other words, not knowing how many disabled people there are is not a bad thing. And yet, thirty years after the ADA it’s still the case that the disabled are horribly underrepresented in the work force. The ADA has not solved the fear among employers that greets every disabled job seeker.
As the old saying goes: “you can’t legislate morality.” Certainly getting people to do the right thing when they’re afraid is daunting. In her 2017 article on the obstacles to disability employment Megan Purdy wrote about the fact that disabled job applicants seldom get interviews:
“Hiring managers and HR pros worry that candidates with disabilities might burden the company in some way, or just make them and their colleagues uncomfortable. “There’s a lot of discomfort with people with disabilities. I think Oh, geez, someone with a spinal cord injury, I’m not sure they’re going to fit in here.””
“In short, the lower response rate observed for candidates with disabilities is due to ignorance and prejudice. These are not challenges candidates can simply overcome with a great resume or interview, they’re bone deep and systematic biases that aren’t quickly eliminated by good data or better training. They’re driven by the sense that employing people with disabilities is somehow more difficult and costly than employing people without disabilities, and even more fundamentally, that people with disabilities are a burden.”
(Here I must interpolate: we don’t have good data and we certainly don’t have good HR training.)
The ADA opened the door for employment by introducing the concept of “reasonable accommodations” and the truth is that most disability related accommodations are inexpensive. Still, rationality doesn’t triumph over able bodied people’s fears about disablement. What if it’s catching? What if that wheelchair person needs me to help him with the bathroom? What if sign language is something I’ll have to learn? I’m afraid of blind people. I’m really uncomfortable with deaf people. Autism is just too hard for me to think about. I know we should have accessible websites but it’s too difficult to think about right now. (A common thing at universities.)
The ADA can’t erase stigma. No civil rights law can do this.
It can only say that discrimination is illegal.
Employers who are afraid of disability all say the same thing: “I’m sorry, we just filled that job.”
Back to Megan Purdy:
“PBS interviewed leaders at accounting firm EY, who are working to dramatically increase the number of people on the autism spectrum. While executives could cite logical reasons for the program – the unique skills that neurodiverse people brought to the team and the boost they provide to the company’s bottom line – their respect for their employees and belief in the program was also clear. They believe in their hiring plan and they value the contributions of all their employees. They have taken the time to do diversity training, not so they can check off that box, so that they can be better managers of people with disabilities. They bought in, understanding the problem, working to root out bias in their company culture, and diversifying their workforce.”
This is the advantage of the ADA: diversity includes disability and America, slowly, ever so slowly is learning how the disabled contribute in positive ways to the workforce. As a friend of mine, a blind attorney once said in an employment interview: “dude, my whole life is outside the box!”