by Peter Altschul
While running a strategic planning session at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s, I became disoriented as I wandered from room to room monitoring the discussions of two groups. I stood there, my hand absently grazing the wall, when I happened to find the name of the room in braille about five feet up on the wall to the left of the door.
“This braille label wouldn’t be here pre-ADA,” I thought to myself. “Now I won’t have to ask for help.”
Other benefits connected with the Americans with Disabilities Act gradually appeared. Braille labels on ATMs and hotel room doors. Brailled menus at some restaurants. Signage in braille next to elevator buttons, with sound cues to indicate at what floor the elevator was stopping. As time passed, the phrase “I need an accommodation” resulted in successfully negotiating ways for organizations to meet my blindness-related needs. More and more products — most notably iGadgets — incorporated software into their designs, making it possible for us to use them.
The most dramatic benefit, however, became clear in 2008, when I took a course at the University of Missouri. Pre-ADA, I spent almost as much time working with sometimes uncooperative professors to try to get the materials ahead of time and then getting these materials put into braille or recorded onto cassettes than I did attending classes and doing homework. Post-ADA, I alerted the university’s Disability Services Office of the course I was taking and poof! All of the materials were made available in a format that I could use.
The biggest failure of the ADA has been in the employment arena. Unemployment rates of the visually impaired and others with disabilities continue to hover in the neighborhood of 65 percent, according to the Social Security Administration.
The reasons for this unemployment problem are complex and interconnected: unavailable, unreliable, or overcrowded public transportation; an overworked network of state vocational rehabilitation agencies set up to assist us in finding jobs; work disincentives of government programs; job-seeker foibles; career-related websites and software programs impenetrable to the software that helps us light-independent people read information on the screens of computers and iGadgets; and the sense that most non-disabled people, while well-meaning, don’t believe in our abilities.
On July 26, 2020, the ADA turned 30 in the midst of pandemic struggles where, like others, many of us disabled people have lost our jobs while the COVID-19 virus has hit us hard.
Change is rippling across the workplace. Contract or gig work replacing full-time jobs. Working from home. Flattening hierarchies. An increased focus on inclusion. Technology disrupting work patterns.
These changes could benefit us disabled people. Working from home might encourage others to focus on our skills instead of being emotionally disabled by our disabilities while saving us from the wear and tear of the commute. An increased focus on diversity’s benefits might influence employers to be more flexible in providing adjustments that meet our needs. Creators of tech software might incorporate accessibility into their products a la Microsoft, Google, and Apple, especially when they discover that some non-disabled people appreciate these features. Too few information technology specialists might encourage employers to work with organizations serving us so that talented people with disabilities can connect with available opportunities. Maybe state and federal governments will find ways to address the work disincentives of programs aimed at supporting us.
Those of us assisting our disabled peers to find work must also think and act in new ways. While literacy skills, technological adeptness, mobility competence, and emotional intelligence are still important, we need to support potential workers to explore how best to use, build on, and sell their strengths in an increasingly fragmented marketplace.
Let’s form alliances with businesses to prepare people with disabilities to meet their needs. Let’s work with politicians to tailor Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs to this new world. Let’s think about universal basic income and portable healthcare, ideas with some support among conservative and progressive policy wonks. And we can all do a better job of focusing on the strengths of others.
Happy birthday, ADA! May you continue to build on your successes and adapt to the changes around you.