July 26 marked the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The law has changed our physical and social landscape, but we still have work to do.
July 26 marked the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
Among other things, the ADA protects people with physical or mental disabilities from discrimination in the workplace, and it requires that the disabled be given equal access to public buildings and amenities. The act defined a disability as any condition that impairs one or more major life activities. In 2008, the ADA was expanded to include chronic health conditions, such as diabetes.
Twenty years ago, critics decried the act, fearing it would lead to frivolous lawsuits and needless expense. And to be fair, those fears have been partly realized. Indeed, two years ago, while on a fishing trip in California, I came across a wheelchair-accessible outhouse near the bottom of a steep mountainside trail. The only way anyone in a wheelchair is going to reach that privy is to be lowered by helicopter!
Nevertheless, the ADA has been a success. It has literally changed our physical landscape, and it has done a great deal to change our social landscape, too. One recent survey found that two-thirds of people with disabilities feel the law has been the most significant influence on their lives in the past 20 years.
But we still have a long way to go. Only 21 percent of disabled, working-age Americans had a job in the past year, and a staggering 70 percent of blind people are unemployed. In this age of high-tech wizardry, that’s unacceptable.
Manufacturers certainly could be doing more. Think you can’t employ people with disabilities on the assembly line? Think again. At the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, for example, visually impaired workers assemble wall clocks, thermometers and custom dry-erase wall planners and calendars. The Louisiana Association for the Blind runs a manufacturing plant in Shreveport where visually impaired workers package copy paper and make no-slip surfaces for the federal government.
Given our continuing military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan-it’s hard to believe we’ve been at war for nearly 10 years-the ADA may be more relevant today than ever. According to the Army Office of the Surgeon General, between September 2001 and January 2009, 1,286 U.S. military personnel serving in Iraq or Afghanistan received wounds resulting in the amputation of one or more limbs.
Remarkably, 8 percent of these individuals have been able to return to some form of active duty. But what of the rest? These brave, skilled, motivated men and women deserve every opportunity for meaningful employment, from the front office to the assembly line.
We urge manufacturers to make every effort to hire people with disabilities. Consult with organizations, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, about hiring disabled veterans. Take a hard look at your shop floor. Can a workstation, tool or machine be modified to accommodate someone with a disability? Surely, the added investment will be rewarded with a loyal, hard-working and grateful employee.