Americans With Disabilities Act

About 10 years ago, journalist Betsy Bayah noticed she was having an increasingly hard time hearing. At the time, Bayah, who was in her early 30s, was a staff reporter for the largest public radio station in Northern California. Her livelihood was directly tied to her hearing — or so she thought. Bayah was devastated, but once she got over her initial panic, she did what any good reporter would: she started asking questions. Her research took her to the Hearing Society of California where she spoke with a work-rehabilitation counselor, who told her, much to her surprise, that the Americans with Disabilities Act could help her stay in her job and her profession. Hearing aids, an amplifier on her phone, and lots of email were the simple alternatives to shutting down a career. “That was a really good feeling,” she recalls. “There are a lot of people who are realizing you can keep working, and there is a law to help you do that.”

When the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect in 1990, disability-rights advocates hailed the law as the tool that would move the minority group with the highest unemployment rate into the work force. Today, the legislation hasn’t done much to help most severely disabled people find work. But there is another group that has benefited enormously from the law: employees who have used it to hold onto their jobs after injuries or illness.

The ADA’s promise

The Americans with Disabilities Act, conceived during the Carter Administration and signed into law by the senior President Bush, was designed to make American society more accessible to the more than 50 million Americans with disabilities. This means that every workplace with 15 or more employees would have to make its facilities accessible to workers, provide them reserved parking and equipment — and most importantly, hire qualified people, regardless of disability. The law also dictates that people with disabilities gain access to government services and public places. In its report looking back on the past decade, the Department of Justice says the ADA is “making the dream of justice a reality.”

Certainly the ADA’s effects are apparent in a casual walk down the street. Access to restaurants, town halls, ballparks, and shopping centers has improved. Bus lifts are more reliable and paratransit services more widespread. Public restrooms have bigger doors and grab bars; elevators are wider; wheelchair ramps lead into in office buildings, courthouses, and town halls. Many cities and towns have curb cuts for wheelchair users, so parents with strollers and urban skateboarders have also benefited from the act.

But as for access to jobs, disability-rights advocates say that at best, there’s been no improvement, and at worst, unemployment among disabled people has actually increased.

In 2009, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of people with a disability was 14.5 percent, higher than the rate for those with no disability, which was 9 percent. Things have only worsened along with the economy.

Joshua Angrist and Daron Acemoglu, two labor economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also concluded that the ADA appeared to have a negative effect on employment for people with disabilities, even after adjusting for such factors as the strength of the economy.

“The stereotype of the guy in the wheelchair who would be great in an office job — there are very few people like that out there,” Angrist said. Instead, he said, most ADA lawsuits are filed by people claiming wrongful termination or failure to promote. The reason: during the early years of the law, many employers were wary of hiring people with disabilities because they were afraid of lawsuits and feared exorbitant costs for accommodations. Angrist says now employers are more comfortable with the law.

Half of all accommodations cost between $1 and $500, while 20 percent cost nothing, according to Anne Hirsch, assistant manager of Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a government arm of the ADA that helps people find jobs. The organization confirms that the major beneficiaries have not been the people for whom the law was intended. In July 2000, Barbara Judy, project manager for JAN, testified before Congress that only 4 percent of her organization’s 40,000 yearly calls for assistance concern the newly hired; 15 percent are from people seeking employment; while 75 percent concern retention and improvement for disabled employees. “The trend seems then to be that the business community is increasingly concerned with accommodating current employees,” Judy told Congress.

Although that attitude leaves many people in the dust, it’s been a boon for people like Bayah. “Before the ADA, the trend was if you were disabled in an essential function, you couldn’t work anymore,” said Erica Jones, executive director of one of JAN’s assistance centers in Berkeley, California. “The law was the force behind people looking at things differently.”

Helping cops and CPAs

A case in point is former Denver police officer Jack Davoll, who filed a complaint with the Justice Department, which led the department to successfully sue under the ADA. Some years ago, Davoll’s squad car was slammed broadside, giving him a major back injury that knocked him out of commission as a beat cop, according to the Justice Department’s 10th anniversary report. When he asked for a civilian job for which he was qualified, the city refused, saying it was against the city charter to transfer a police officer to a civilian job. In November 1996, a jury found that the city of Denver had violated the ADA by not reassigning Davoll to another available job. He was awarded damages and lost wages that totaled more than $500,000.

Rod Jex, who is deaf, hit a barrier when he tried to become a Certified Public Accountant. Enrolled in preparatory classes to take the CPA exam, Jex found that without a sign-language interpreter, he was at an extreme disadvantage. The company refused to supply one until he filed a lawsuit under the ADA.

But Deborah Kaplan, executive director of the World Institute on Disability in Berkeley, California, believes it will take a long time before people with serious disabilities will be able to take full advantage of the ADA. “A year or so ago, there were several articles saying that the employment provisions of the law haven’t worked,” she said. “Many of us said, ‘Duh.’ The ADA is an essential part of solving the employment problems of people with disabilities but it’s not enough.”

For example, Kaplan said that many people who would like to work don’t because they risk losing Social Security benefits that pay for care they couldn’t afford with entry-level jobs. “You don’t see people with more severe disabilities filling in those (employment) numbers because they would lose their personal assistants, Medicare and Medicaid,” she said.

Fear may be diminishing

Critics of the ADA say that the law leads to frivolous lawsuits and coddling of malingerers. Kaplan believes some of this resistance springs from fear and misunderstanding of disability.

“There’s this incredible legacy of hundreds of years of stigma associated with disability,” Kaplan said. “People have wanted to preserve a line between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ On the other hand, the ADA is making life easier for a lot of people, and in the process it’s eroding the line between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ People are starting to think, ‘Maybe that back problem I have or that hearing problem I have is a disability, but I’m still not like them.'”

Kaplan notes that change will occur as more baby boomers become disabled. “It just happens with age,” she said. “As more people experience disability themselves, more attitudes will change.” For Bayah, who is now an associate producer of documentaries, the power of the ADA was not the legal leverage it gave her — her employers and colleagues at KQED-FM in San Francisco were very supportive. The presence of the law changed the way she thought about her future. “It’s not whether I’ll be able to work,” she said. “It’s how will I adapt my work environment to fit me.”

Know your rights

Nolo, a publisher of legal books in Berkeley, California, offers this on disabled workers’ rights:

  • ADA protections extend to any job applicant or employee with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or someone who has a history of such impairments.
  • An employer cannot refuse to hire a qualified person just because he or she is disabled, but by the same token, a prospective employee has to be able to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer may ask whether you can perform the duties of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.
  • Employers are required to extend “reasonable accommodations” to the disabled, based on the employer’s size and resources. In summary, these include ergonomic arrangements that fit each person’s needs; hours flexible enough so that workers can get regular medical treatments; modifying exams and training materials as necessary; hiring readers or interpreters, and providing training specialists.
  • The ADA requires that you work with your employer to find an accommodation suitable to both of you. If that fails, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the ADA.

Further Resources

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

A federal online resource for Americans with disabilities. Links to Disability Employment Sites.

World Institute on Disability

Disability Resources Monthly

Job Accommodation Network (JAN)


Bureau of Labor Statistics. Persons With a Disability. Labor Force Characteristics News Release. Aug. 25, 2010

Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics. (2008). 2009 Disability Status Report. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Enforcing the ADA: Looking Back on a Decade of Progress. U.S. Dept. of Justice; Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. July 2000.

Americans With Disabilities Act Handbook: Basic Resource Document. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Staff. Dec. 1993. p. 907.

Car Insurance for People with Disabilities., 2016.

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