One of the core services that we offer at the Rocky Mountain ADA Center is technical assistance. In other words, we answer questions and guide people toward action they can take in an ADA-related situation.
When I first started doing technical assistance, I struggled with resisting the urge to tell people to leave the situation in which their rights are being violated. For example, I might get a call from someone who is struggling to get an accommodation at work. The employer is being difficult and not complying with their responsibilities under Title I of the ADA. Some of the ways people report being treated are horrendous. I hear the distress situations like this cause people, and I can’t help but wonder why they want to continue working there at all.
These situations are so egregious and the battle so uphill that my first inclination was to say, “Get out of there! Find a new job with someone who values you and understands your rights under the ADA!" It’s at this point that I reminded myself: That's not how this is supposed to work!
The ADA passed 29 years ago and yet so many employers seem to dig their heels in when they’re asked to comply with it. After all these years, we should not be advising people with disabilities to remove themselves from unwelcome situations, we should be calling on employers do what is legally required of them.
The ADA's clearly stated goals are to "assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency." This is what we refer to as the "spirit of the law." The quality of a person's employment impacts their ability to realize those goals.
Employment statistics for people with disabilities paint a discouraging picture of the current job climate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that "across all age groups, persons with a disability were much less likely to be employed than those with no disability". Also, people with disabilities are more likely to be working part-time jobs.
On our new podcast, "Adventures in Accessibility," our first two guests commented on the difficulty of finding employment. Haben Girma, the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, said, "There's a lot of discrimination for employees and job applicants with disabilities. I knew I would have a tough time finding a job with just a college degree and a law advisor at my college told me, 'If you want to become an attorney and increase your chances of getting a job, you really should go one of the top schools.' So, I applied to all the top schools. When I got admission from Harvard, I knew there would be a lot of opportunities there and it would increase my chances of getting a job after law school. Unfortunately, even lawyers with disabilities face discrimination.'"
Chris Finn said that even though he got his master’s degree in school counseling, nobody would hire him. "I probably submitted close to a hundred applications for not only school counseling jobs but just other counseling jobs in general... I got one interview, and it didn't work out."
People with disabilities are already up against barriers to finding employment. Once they have a job, they should expect they will get accommodated if needed and not given the run-around. The reality is switching employers is not a great solution in this scenario. Chances are, finding another job will be hard and the next employer might have the same attitude about employee requests for accommodation.
Now, when I'm faced with a technical assistance question like this, I don't have such a strong urge to find the path of least resistance. I understand that my role is to educate people about their rights and what enforcement or advocacy options are available. Ultimately, people must make the decision that is right for them.