Uphold the ADA and Commit to Employees and Leaders with Disabilities

Emily Blum
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July 28, 2020

This piece was originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on July 27, 2020 and was coauthored by Emily Blum and Karen Tamley.

Thirty years ago, on July 26, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), changing the lives of millions of people with disabilities, including the authors of this op-ed.

This landmark civil rights legislation made it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities, and as a result we have more access to schools, jobs, public transportation, restaurants, cultural institutions and other spaces open to the general public.

At its heart, the ADA reinforces that people with disabilities have civil, political, and human rights. But there is so much more to do to see the promise of the ADA fully realized.

Emily speaks into a mic at a podum with the ADA 25 logo. Brown, medium length hair. Short-sleeved maroon dress, glasses.
Emily Blum

While the law has infinitely benefited lives, we deserve and demand more: to be hired and advance at the same rates of those who aren’t disabled; to be fairly and equitably compensated, and for people of color with disabilities to have the same kind of opportunities and access as their white counterparts.

The ADA banned discrimination in the workplace, but according to the U.S Department of Labor only 19 percent of disabled workrs had jobs in 2019, compared to 66 percent of workers without disabilities, and we anticipate the gap growing as a result of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, a Crain’s article illuminated the ways in which the public sector outperforms the corporate sector on diversity. While it’s mandated by the state of Illinois that by January 2021 all public companies must disclose gender and ethnicity data and outline how board selections are made, that push for diversity doesn’t include disability…and it should. People with disabilities make up a talented and largely untapped work force.

As leaders with disabilities, this to us is obvious. Yet, we understand it may not be as clear to others.

Karen speaks into a microphone, her left hand gesturing outward. Her hair is short, brown. Red floral blouse, black cardigan.
Karen Tamley

That’s why we call on you to not just celebrate and commit to the letter of the law, but truly believe that the experiences and ideas of people with disabilities, particularly those of color, are vital to your agendas, priorities, lines of work, and bottom lines. Here’s how to start:

  1. Include disability as part of your diversity goals. If disability is not on your agenda, neither is diversity. One in four people in the United States have a disability, making disabled people part of one of the largest and most diverse minority groups in the country. Your current and future employees have disabilities. Prepare everyone, from your recruiters to your frontline staff.
  2. Include people with disabilities in your leadership. People with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in professional and civic leadership roles. To be successful, you must build disability inclusion into your board structure and senior leadership tables.
  3. Make sure the technology you use is accessible. If the products and tools you sell and use to conduct business are not accessible, you’re missing out on a large pool of customers and workers. As COVID-19 has shown us, accessible technology also better prepares you for the remote, flexible work environments of the future — environments that are likely to be more accessible overall and that the entire workforce can benefit from.

True progress hinges on the willing and active participation of decision makers in the corporate, government, nonprofit, and philanthropic sector. In a time of civil unrest and political turmoil, the ADA calls for unity and has the potential to once again opens our imagination of what’s possible when we strive to create an inclusive and equitable society. The next 30 years will be on us to ensure that our history — rooted in both the progress and failures of the past — continues to push true equity for people with disabilities forward.

Emily Blum is executive director of Disability Lead in Chicago. Karen Tamley is CEO of Access Living in Chicago.

Category:
Op Ed