In case you missed it, the 30th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not long ago. All employers need to remember that workforce diversity includes people with disabilities.
All savvy employers should know by now that providing equal opportunities to people with disabilities simply makes good business sense. This is especially true in an interconnected, global economy. Unfortunately, not every company has gotten the message.
As the ADA turned 30, there was good and bad news regarding people with disabilities (PWDs). The good news: The disability community can be found in virtually all aspects of modern society.
PWDs account for a large part of the American population and are a lucrative consumer base for companies. Moreover, employees with disabilities can positively contribute to a company’s bottom line productivity. All they need is an equal opportunity.
The bad news: Too many employers—from Corporate America to small and mid-sized companies—continue to miss out on hiring the best available talent by unlawfully excluding workers with disabilities for discriminatory reasons. Too many companies fail to realize that many PWDs are qualified, ready, willing, and able to work. All they need is an equal opportunity to showcase their abilities.
Yet, 30-years after the enactment of the ADA, countless qualified applicants with disabilities continue to be dismissed from consideration based on unfounded myths, fears, and stereotypes, in addition to blatant bias and bigotry.
It remains paradoxical that in the USA — a country founded on the bedrock principles of freedom and equality — qualified PWDs are still being denied the basic freedom to compete and advance on a level playing field, one without discriminatory barriers.
Narrow-minded companies only hurt themselves by excluding PWDs from employment. PWDs represent a vast pool of untapped talent. But there’s good news too: many savvy and progressive employers have learned that leveraging the talents and abilities of PWDs helps maximize productivity and extend their reach to a diverse segment of consumers.
Recruiting, hiring, training, retaining, and advancing well-qualified employees with disabilities contribute to greater bottom-line productivity and profits. Being more inclusive should be of utmost importance to all employers in an increasingly diverse society. Nevertheless, a continuing stigma of disability bias is evidenced by a large number of discrimination cases against intransigent employers who reject voluntary compliance with the ADA.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — where I worked for many years as a career spokesman — received over 24,000 charges of disability discrimination in 2019, accounting for one-third of the total private sector caseload.
The number of disability bias claims filed with the EEOC now exceeds those filed based on racial bias and sex discrimination. This persistent problem is magnified when accounting for the countless thousands of unreported incidents of disability discrimination in the employment context and all facets of society.
The number of reported cases is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, which is true for all types of discrimination and harassment. And while people with physical disabilities have made gains since the passage of the ADA, it’s a different story for people with mental disabilities (anxiety disorder, depression, etc.).
All Americans must be vigilant to end the stigma of mental illness.
ADA charges based on mental disabilities are one of the biggest subcategories of disability discrimination cases filed with the EEOC. Therefore, more companies should be mindful of the real costs of disability bias for both physical and mental impairments. These costs manifest for a business not only in terms of large payouts for investigations, litigation settlements, and jury verdicts but also in major PR damage to the company brand (for which one can’t place a dollar amount).
It’s hard to believe that three decades after the ADA’s enactment, PWDs continue to confront a plethora of unfounded myths, fears, and stereotypes about their ability to do the job. These biased attitudes preclude PWDs from reaching their full employment potential based on talent, ability, and merit, which should be the only criteria for making employment decisions.
Repeat: All applicants should be assessed on their talent, ability, and merit to do the job.
Let’s remember that disabilities affect people of every race, color, gender, religion, age and national origin, a large cross-section of the U.S. population. PWDs are our parents, spouses, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers and significant others.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of all Americans have a temporary or permanent disability. That equates to about 60 million citizens of all ages who represent a consumer base worth hundreds of billions of dollars. This is a colossal chunk of purchasing power in a global marketplace. Moreover, the percentage of Americans with disabilities has held steady over the years and may increase as Baby Boomers and Generation X continue to live longer thanks to cutting-edge technology and medical breakthroughs.
The disability population represents an integral segment of society which helps form the fabric of America. Further, there are a significant number of disabled veterans who bravely sacrificed their lives and limbs in military service to America. Some of the honorable organizations which represent them include Disabled Veterans of America (DAV), Disabled Veterans National Foundation and Paralyzed Veterans of America. There’s also the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service at the U.S. Department of Labor. We must never forget about American veterans with disabilities.
As noted above, too many companies are obstinate in hiring and reasonably accommodating employees with disabilities. But new and evolving cost-effective technologies are available to accommodate many employees with disabilities based on their specific essential job functions.
Additionally, some disability accommodations, like alternate schedules and flexible work, cost nothing at all. Telework (remote work or telecommuting) on a regular or periodic basis, for example, saves money for employers and reduces environmental degradation inherent with gas-guzzling commutes. Remote work is also key to contingency planning by companies, as the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated.
Employees with disabilities also tend to work smarter and harder because of the high hurdles they must overcome to secure gainful employment. PWDs highly value their jobs.
Disability discrimination has no place in the workplace or any other place. Yet three decades after passage of the landmark law, people with disabilities are too often treated as second class citizens.
This must end ASAP. The fact is that qualified job applicants with disabilities can be found everywhere in every industry. Closely coordinating with disability advocacy groups, like the American Association of People with Disabilities (and others listed above), is a good first step to open the clogged pipeline.
Again, disability employment is all about ability, skills, talent, and merit — rather than unfounded myths, fears and stereotypes. It is, therefore, incumbent for corporate leadership to send a clear message from the top-down that diversity and inclusion make good business sense, including hiring qualified people with disabilities based on merit.
It’s not enough for the HR staff or mid-level managers to put the word out. That’s because when the message is forcefully communicated from the very top of the company, it has a higher likelihood of being followed down the organizational chart. It really shouldn’t matter where employee talent derives. Ability is what counts most. Moreover, PWDs should never be ruled out categorically by employers for unlawful and immoral reasons.
Lastly, the fundamental principle of equal opportunity and equal justice for all represents the very essence of the American Dream. This principle is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which states that all individuals have “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
And that includes people with disabilities.
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