A Quarter-Century Later, How Does the ADA Hold Up?
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The general consensus when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is that you’d either have to be wildly inconsiderate or outrageously contrarian to suggest there’s something wrong with it. But, as you might have guessed, there are some legitimate criticisms of the ADA that aren’t founded on psychopathy.
When it was first introduced, the main purpose of the ADA was to make it easier for people with disabilities to get jobs by outlawing disability-based employment discrimination and requiring employers to make accommodations for the disabled people they hire. It also extended to making almost everything else physically accessible to handicapped customers.
All those reserved parking spaces right up close to your favorite stores? Those are a product of the ADA and were designed so that people with disabilities have a better chance of experiencing the world like everyone else. Much like the name, it sounds pretty good.
The problem, then, isn’t with the intentions of this piece of legislation, but with the execution. Simply put, the ADA has failed to accomplish what it set out to do: namely, to make it easier for the disabled to get jobs. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that in the years following the introduction of the ADA, the employment rate of disabled people actually fell. And things haven’t improved overmuch in the meantime; currently, the unemployment rate among disabled Americans sits at 11.2%, which is exactly double the overall national unemployment rate of 5.6%.
So if the ADA didn’t jump-start the employment prospects for the disabled, what exactly did it do?
Initially, after the ADA was signed into law, it actually made some employers even more reluctant to hire disabled people because they were petrified of having to go through the whole process of making their business ADA compliant. What if they missed something and got hit with a lawsuit? That’s certainly not the kind of effect the bill was supposed to have. But now that the bill has been around for so long, this kind of “chilling effect” on employment has warmed up a bit; most employers have already gone through the initial expense of updating their businesses anyway.
But did you catch that one little word in that last paragraph? The terrifying one that business owners hear in their nightmares? Lawsuits. Those haven’t gone away. Though employers may feel safe by now, the truth is this: that feeling of security might be broken wide open by an unexpected lawsuit. This type of lawsuit doesn’t have any notice requirement, meaning businesses don’t get a chance to correct what they’re doing wrong before they’re stuck scrambling to find a lawyer of their own.
This isn’t to say all lawyers are wheelchair-chasing profiteers; plenty of decent lawyers take a more measured approach to helping their clients determine whether they have a legitimate claim. But the Lionel Hutzs of the world won’t hesitate to take advantage of any and every opportunity to slam a business that isn’t 100% ADA compliant. As recently as last year, this particular branch of law was still going strong, with small business owners facing more disability lawsuits than ever before. In 2013 alone, disability lawsuits rose by 9% over 2012.
The good news is that 2014 – the 24th anniversary of the signing of the ADA into law – saw a lot of progress being made. A new regulation by the Department of Labor (called Section 503) will require federal contractors to work toward having 7% of the total workforce comprised of disabled persons.
A little further back, order 13548 (signed into law by President Obama in 2010) has resulted in a dramatic increase in disabled persons being hired for federal jobs (that number was 7% in 2010, but rose to 12% in 2013).
So: While it’s clear that the law in its current form is a bit of a lightning rod for frivolous lawsuits, it’s clear that our government remains committed to the ADA and to seeing that it changes over the years according to our needs.
And that, quite simply, is the very purpose of any law. For now, though, we can all look forward to a day when fairness and inclusion needn’t be legislative mandates, and instead come as naturally to us as breathing.