Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 25: Challenges Met, Challenges Remain

President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

The groundbreaking legislation changed the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities, ushering in a universal mandate for nondiscrimination across all sectors of life. Now, 25 years later, people with disabilities can largely enjoy the same rights and access as any other American — but experts say there is still work to be done.

“Before the ADA, employers could put a sign on their door that said, ‘People With Disabilities Not Allowed to Work Here,’ ” said Lex Frieden, a professor of biomedical informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. “We needed to make it clear that when we say in the Constitution that everyone’s created equal, that we carried that out in terms of the way we practice, the way we live our lives.”

Frieden, who served from 1984 to 1988 as the executive director of the National Council on the Handicapped (now the National Council on Disability), helped pen the original ADA. The act has since been amended to include a broader definition of disability, which ensures cancer survivors and people with less obvious disabilities are covered by the law.

“The EEOC, with lots of public testimony, didn’t feel like enough people were being served under the old definition, and that there were people who maybe didn’t have the specific types of disabilities — their disabilities were not as clear as what the law had originally stated,” said Terri Rhodes, CEO of The Disability Management Employer Coalition. “They felt like they really needed to broaden people who would be qualified.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 reinforced the ADA’s original requirement that employers provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities, including, when necessary, leave of absence. However, Rhodes said employers often still have difficulties understanding what qualifies as reasonable accommodation, particularly when it comes to granting leave.

“Employers don’t have clear guidance on how much leave is enough, and so employers struggle with that portion of the law,” Rhodes said. “You can wind up in this sort of circuitous route where the doctor just keeps extending the disability, and the person’s not actually getting back to work or there doesn’t appear to be a definite date for someone to get back to work.”

Additionally, Rhodes said there could be situations where it is not in the employer’s means to fully accommodate for specific types of disabilities.

“Sometime it doesn’t work, and it’s not going to work,” Rhodes said. “Some decision needs to be made about whether an employer can continue to try to accommodate or help somebody try to find another job.”

At the same time, Frieden said employers tend to overestimate how much accommodations for employees with disabilities will actually cost, and that fear of excessively high expenses often prevents them from hiring job candidates with disabilities.

“While that may not cause an employer to discriminate overtly, it may cause them to be hesitant in the hiring process,” Frieden said. “If someone without a disability comes along who’s also qualified, they may simply choose that person because, in the back of their mind, they’re concerned about what might be an extraordinary expense related to the reasonable accommodation.”

In reality, Frieden said his research has shown that in nearly every case, the cost of accommodations is minimal or nil. He believes employers could benefit from reviews of the cost of accommodation, in order to dispel that source of unconscious bias toward people with disabilities.

Furthermore, rather than fear extra expense, Frieden said employers should be “more aggressive” about recruiting employees with disabilities.

“They’d find that some people with disabilities are actually much more qualified than their nondisabled counterparts,” he said. “Because they’ve had challenges finding employment, they would probably be much more loyal than perhaps other employees.”

Once hired, Rhodes said employers can improve relationships with and management of employees with disabilities by promoting an ongoing and honest conversation between employer and employee about the demands of the job and how the employee can best be accommodated.

“Employers need to engage in the interactive process, and that does not mean a one-way conversation,” Rhodes said. “It’s a two-way conversation with the employee and the employer about what they can do, what their job entails, what their actual physical requirements are, and then having an ongoing dialogue.”