ADA 25 years later: We're still not equal — especially in jobs | Analysis
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ADA 25 years later: We're still not equal — especially in jobs

This July marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and while there is reason to celebrate progress over the years there remains a call to action to affirm equality – especially in terms of employment.

Just one in three Arizonans with disabilities ages 16 to 64 were employed from 2008 to 2012, according to the census. That’s compared to 71 percent of Arizonans with no disabilities who were employed during that time.

Perhaps even more sobering is the percentage of Arizonans with disabilities not even in the job market: 59 percent. So if they are not in the labor market, is employment even an issue? Yes. While some people with disabilities do choose not to work, multiple studies show that the majority would like to work but don’t know how to get their foot in the door. And for many, those doors appear to remain all but closed anyway.

When we see a person with a disability successfully employed, we tend to call that person an “inspiration.” That’s because as a society we still don’t perceive this segment of the population as an asset capable of productive employment.

A recent Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council report, “The Graduation Cliff,” found that even parents of children with disabilities and disability service professionals have lower expectations of their children’s ability to be gainfully employed as adults. The parents don’t believe they can handle a job or are afraid they will be bullied.

The ADDPC report, conducted by Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, also found that we, as a society, do not expect people with disabilities to contribute through employment. Meanwhile, some business owners assume that providing accommodations to employees with disabilities is too difficult or costly.

In addition to low expectations for employment, many people with disabilities rely on a formal disability system with its limited options to confront employment barriers, according to a 2014 ADDPC report, “Employment Options for People with Developmental Disabilities in Arizona.”

The study by Morrison Institute found that less than 1 percent of individuals who receive employment services through the Division of Development Disabilities are offered support to obtain a job in the community making at least minimum wage. The rest are working in predominately segregated, disability employment programs making less than minimum wage.

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It was no surprise then that the subsequent report, “The Graduation Cliff,” found that help from DDD professionals actually lowers the aspirations and goals of both youth and their parents, regardless of the significance of the disability.

According to previous research, also tamping down employment ambitions of people with disabilities is their fear of losing disability benefits and health insurance if they work. But their fears are unfounded. Work incentive rules allow individuals to retain their health care and maximize earning potential. This widespread misconception has led to some workers passing up promotions so that they can continue to receive the maximum SSI payout, which is $733 a month. This incorrect assumption has relegated a population of people with disabilities into poverty.

There are success stories amid these formidable barriers, ones that not only should draw notice but for once and for all dismantle the very apparatus of our unintended prejudice and misguided discrimination.

Randall M. Howe is one such example. As an attorney, he represented state and federal governments in more than 400 appeals and habeas actions, and argued 84 cases in the Arizona Supreme Court, the Arizona Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He even has argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Howe, who has cerebral palsy, which affects his speech and his mobility, is now an appellate judge for the state of Arizona. And while he frequently encounters incorrect assumptions about his abilities, he is the first to say he is not an “inspiration.” He instead credits others.

Without his mother’s support in his education, his high school teacher’s persistence to join the debate team to improve his speech and his confidence, and his college professors’ invitation to join the National Moot Court team where he developed an affinity for appellate law, Howe said he wouldn’t be where he is today – among Arizona’s elite jurists.   

A consistent theme in Howe’s story and other people with disabilities who are successful in employment is the presence of a champion or two who recognize that individual’s strengths and supports his or her employment goals. Such influence often begins early on, with – like all of society – landing that first job really depending on whom you know. As noted in “The Graduation Cliff” report, 88 percent of high school students with disabilities who are employed in the community, making at least minimum wage, found the jobs through a family member, friend, a neighbor or acquaintance.

I personally can attest to how these first jobs can influence your career. I have cerebral palsy that affects my right side. Because of my disability, I appeared a little more awkward than the average “awkward” teen, which also affected my self-esteem and my ability to interview well for an entry-level job. However, a friend of mine knew a restaurant manager who was hiring and vouched for me to work bussing tables. It was the beginning step for my self-confidence.

Perhaps fittingly coinciding with the milestone anniversary of ADA, that first job 25 years ago would help lead me to a path for obtaining my doctorate.

Howe also applied for his first job because a friend told him about it. That job helped him acquire his second job, and so on. In fact, Howe’s associations and connections with people he grew to know started a domino effect in employment opportunities that continued throughout his career and led him to a judgeship.

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Again, it is no different than the rest of society. It’s all about making the human connection.

Technology has made that more possible today than ever before. Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn give all of us the power to start changing the images and stories of what people with disabilities contribute every day. Networking for jobs and access to a wealth of ideas and opportunities can shared across cyberspace. The “loss of benefits” myth that impedes employment can be busted through a social media campaign.

The momentum for improved employment outcomes is building at many different levels. A flurry of federal initiatives over the last two years has made the hiring of people with disabilities – and paying them at least minimum wage – a priority. Like 26 other states, Arizona is moving towards becoming an Employment First state, prioritizing access to integrated work settings for people with disabilities.

The newly formed Disability Policy Research Initiative of the Intermountain West, or DRIIM, will use social media for the purpose of broad dissemination of compelling, easy-to-read and timely research data to change the disability narrative among legislators, the general public and news media.

Society has its role, too. A community-based effort would open up access to employment that the ADA aspired to do 25 years ago. Maybe then we will no longer see the presence of people with disabilities in the workplace as “inspirational,” but presumed to be a valuable part of the team.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

McFadden is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute.

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ada, disabled, jobs, unemployment publishes analysis and commentary from a variety of community members, experts, and interest groups as a catalyst for a healthy civic conversation; we welcome your comments. As an organization, we don't endorse candidates or back specific legislation. All opinions are those of the individual authors.