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The ADA at 30: My Perspective as a Person with a Disability
Steven James Tingus, a diversity, equity and disability inclusion leader in Hollywood, discusses the importance of the Americans with Disability Act.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a month in which we celebrate the many contributions of workers with disabilities and the work that still needs to be done to remove the barriers that often prevent people with disabilities from working. In America, people with disabilities have traditionally been left behind in terms of the perception of their abilities and worth. In fact, we are the largest underrepresented minority in our country, making up 26% of Americans or 61 million (1 in 4 adults) – with the highest concentration in the Southern states, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research.
I was fortunate to be a senior member of the Bush-Cheney Administration for all eight years, leading disability, aging, and health care policy work and research both at Education and then at HHS. While the tragic effects of 9/11 are still felt today, we in the Administration were at that time headstrong in ensuring the continuation of services and supports to our most vulnerable citizens.
President George H.W. Bush’s historic signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990 was a civil rights achievement in itself. President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Initiative (NFI), signed into law 11 years later on February 1, 2001, established the blueprint for the Administration’s efforts to improve the health, education, independent living, and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I was a proud policy co-architect of NFI. Since ADA and NFI, physical access and educational standards for people with disabilities have been improved.
However, the abysmal 67% unemployment rate for our community hasn’t improved, even after 30 years (HHS’s American Community Survey, 2019). This is primarily due to a lack of large employer tax incentives to hire qualified employees with disabilities from all disciplines, as well as a lack of safeguards against frivolous lawsuits made by a few notorious bad apples in the disability community. As a country, we miss out when people with disabilities don’t have the chance to contribute as colleagues, business owners, and taxpayers. Moreover, research suggests that people with disabilities are happier and healthier when they have the opportunity to work, thus reducing health care costs and the prevention of secondary conditions (HHS’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019).
Frequently, the highest obstacles to employment are not physical. For example, businesses often believe reasonable accommodations are extremely difficult or costly to provide, and they shy away from hiring people with disabilities as a result. In fact, nearly 60% of accommodations cost nothing at all, and the rest had an average cost of $500 (DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2019).
In closing, the ADA was signed into law, giving people with disabilities their hard-fought civil rights — the first comprehensive law addressing the needs of people with disabilities. President George H.W. Bush placed it among his proudest achievements. We as Bush-Cheney Alumni need to stand up and challenge our political and business leaders to re-engage in getting more qualified people with disabilities hired so that as the whole population ages drastically by 2030 that more resources/supports are available to those in the greatest need.