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Being Part of the Solution: Building on the Promise of the ADA

September 30, 2020

Together, we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted. For ours will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper. – President George H.W. Bush

Thirty years ago, George H.W. Bush declared these motivating words as he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, which provided the path to civil rights protections for people with disabilities in employment, public accommodations, transportation, government services, and telecommunications. The struggle to bring the ADA into reality was years long, and its passage laid the groundwork for more inclusive American workplaces and communities.

Indeed, much progress has been made since the ADA’s signing to support employment and, in turn, economic advancement of people with disabilities in America. To highlight just a few:

  • In the 1999 landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is discriminatory to segregate people with disabilities in employment and community living settings when integrated, community-based settings are available.
  • In 2001, Congress established the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), within the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), creating a permanent entity to focus on disability within the context of federal labor policy.
  • The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) program was created to support employers who have invested in diversifying their workforce. 
  • Two updates to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act were implemented to ensure greater accessibility in the ever-expanding virtual world as well as the physical. 
  • In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) clarified “disability” as an inclusive term, making it easier for a person seeking protection under the law to establish eligibility.
  • The following year DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing data on the employment status of people with disabilities, ensuring baseline data is available to measure the progress and impact of disability- and inclusivity-focused efforts.
  • Twice, Congress updated the nation’s workforce development system, most recently in 2014 with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which made sweeping changes. Notably, WIOA infused disability employment into a general workforce development law—thereby recognizing that people with disabilities should have access to the same programs and services as everyone else. Through nondiscrimination and equal opportunity requirements, WIOA also affirmed that all people should be able to access and benefit from these services.
  • In recognition that economic advancement is an essential part of the ADA, the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act of 2014 created tax-advantaged savings accounts for certain individuals with disabilities and their families.
  • In 2019, DOL's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs began publishing focused reviews of federal contractors’ compliance with Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which compels contractors to take proactive steps to recruit, hire, promote, and retain people with disabilities.

This list of strides is by no means exhaustive, but it clearly illustrates a positive trajectory. It points toward a more inclusive society, one in which competitive, integrated employment is the norm, and where everyone can contribute their talents and skills toward a rewarding career.

That said, work remains. The ADA calls on us to ensure that everyone is afforded a clear path to economic self-sufficiency and financial stability through employment. Yet, people with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed, have difficulty finding work that offers a living wage, and experience poverty and homelessness.

To address these gaps, ODEP’s LEAD Center promotes equal opportunity and access within the greater workforce system governed by WIOA. For example:

  • Our Inclusive Career Pathways Roadmap enables workforce professionals to access resources that will help people with disabilities achieve employment and economic self-sufficiency.
  • Our DRIVE website allows users to conduct state comparisons and analyses to help guide policy development.
  • Our interactive data visualization tool helps states and local areas investigate the status of their WIOA disability-related reporting, and we are creating accompanying tools to help American Job Centers more effectively connect with and serve people with disabilities.

Also under development is:

  • A robust financial toolkit that will offer crucial resources for anyone navigating a complex economic landscape, whether planning for, getting, keeping, advancing, or recovering from the loss of a job.
  • Modular training for case managers so that they can connect Veterans to inclusive apprenticeship opportunities.
  • Statewide equal opportunity and programmatic accessibility training and technical assistance for workforce personnel in Virginia. 

The work that we are conducting today is made possible by the groundwork laid in the last century, and the efforts undertaken in the last 30 years. The ADA was an early milestone on a continuing path—one that ends with economic security and full inclusion in our workplaces and community spaces. Doing this work together will enable all of us the opportunity to contribute to our collective success and advancement as a nation.

George H.W. Bush signing the ADA