30 Years After a Landmark Disability Law, the Fight for Access and Equality Continues
Access to employment, one of the central promises of the ADA, is perhaps most out of reach. Disabled people are still roughly twice as likely as nondisabled Americans to be unemployed and to live in poverty, and these numbers have persisted over time. While employment rates had begun improving in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic is reversing that trend. Workers with disabilities still face both overt discrimination and implicit bias, but another part of the problem, experts say, is that the Social Security benefit programs on which many disabled people rely come with restrictive eligibility requirements that can act as work disincentives.
People with disabilities have long advocated for changes in these policies, but the rest of the country has been slow to listen. Though 1 in 4 Americans has some sort of disability, they have historically split their support between the two main political parties. Inaccessible polling places also pose a problem, says Keri Gray, who oversees the American Association of People with Disabilities’ voter-registration and civic-engagement campaign. “There’s this lack of creative thinking and problem solving that needs to happen, like, yesterday, for our country to be really effective,” she says. Gray, who is Black, also argues that advocating for disabled people’s right to vote should go hand in hand with fighting for racial justice–something the disability-rights movement hasn’t always done, she says.
Though that, too, is improving. As younger activists like Gray, who was born the year the ADA was passed, take center stage, they are bringing new, more inclusive ideas about disability rights. Ne’eman, who is writing a book about the history of American disability advocacy, says the increase in people publicly embracing their disability as part of their identity has played an important role in shaping new public attitudes.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also playing a part. With tens of millions of Americans suddenly working and attending school remotely, and thousands experiencing lingering health problems, it’s become more commonplace to think about what it means to need accommodations, rely on friends and neighbors, and depend on government support.