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Discrimination Doesn't End on the 25th Anniversary of the ADA

By Lennard J. Davis

Davis at the 25th ADA Anniversary
Davis signing copies of Enabling Acts at the ADA 25th Anniversary Event in Washington, DC

This blog appeared originally on The Huffington Post.

While July 26 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we need to recall that discrimination against people with disabilities is not over.

The ADA accomplished a lot. It banned employment discrimination, made public transportation accessible, opened places of public accommodation and added closed captioning so the Deaf could watch television, to name a few. But discrimination against people with disabilities remains.

There is economic discrimination. When we talk about the ninety-nine percent and the one percent, we may forget that within that ninety-nine percent there are some groups that suffer the most. There is no group in the US as badly off as people with disabilities who are the largest and poorest US minority.

Even twenty-five years after the ADA, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is upwards of seventy percent. A person with disabilities is twice as likely as a non-disabled person to live in poverty. Very poor disabled people who haven't worked or worked minimally will receive disability benefits of $9,000 per year while people who have worked will receive about $13,000 per year.

Sheltered workshops provide occasions for disabled people to work, but they are permitted to be paid as little as twenty cents per hour. This is the case with Goodwill Industries where their regional executives make upwards of $500,000 while the workers make two percent of our already paltry minimum wage. For other people with disabilities who want to work, getting a job means losing the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) they already have as well as the personal assistants and homecare help that would make it possible to get a job in the first place.

Marriage inequality exists. While LGBTQ Americans can now marry in all fifty states, low-income people with disabilities who are receiving SSI cannot. If they marry someone with a job and any savings above $2,000 they will lose their benefits since being without assets is the qualification for receiving this type of benefit.

Discrimination on a personal level still exists. While there has been some progress in improving the public image of people with disabilities—think of Steven Hawking, Marlee Maitlin, Tammy Duckworth, or the current Governor of Texas Greg Abbott—the social stigma accompanying disability remains. People with disabilities are discriminated against in more powerful but hard to regulate ways—the job interview, dating websites, social engagements, and the like.

The media, which helps shape perceptions, tends to be filled with images of normality. And where there are disabled characters in film and television, they are almost always played by non-disabled actors. Even the wheelchair user on Glee was played by a non-disabled actor who needed a disabled body-double to perform the dance numbers. The message in Hollywood is that if you're a disabled actor you might as well forget about getting a job.

Discrimination also exists in misperceptions about how government benefits work. As we move into the election cycle, be prepared to hear from the likes of Rand Paul and others who will be telling you that disability benefits should be cut and that a vast majority of people on disability are frauds. Paul claimed: "Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts—join the club." Actually, the fraud rate for government benefits is less than one percent by many estimates. Yet disabled people on benefits are cast as "welfare queens."

image from www.beacon.orgGiven all this discrimination—what needs to be done? We need benefit reform so that people with disabilities can go to work without fearing they will lose their supports and health insurance. But we also can look to other countries where the unemployment rates for disabled people are much lower. Two-thirds of the European Union states have some form of quota system, as does Japan. In France, all companies with more than twenty workers are required to have six percent of the employees be people with disabilities. As a result, the average rate of unemployment for EU workers with disabilities is about five percent of those who want to work and are not "inactive." Compare that with the eighty percent unemployment rate in the United States.

Given the current political climate, quotas may seem an unlikely outcome. But quotas are not the only answer in the European Union. There are far more programs that seek to put disabled people to work in the private sector. In the US, one area in which there is a reasonable level of employment for people with disabilities is in government. In 2010 President Obama issued an executive decree to increase disabled workers in the federal government. That helped raise the number of disabled people to almost twelve percent of the all federal employees.

There is much to celebrate on this twenty-fifth anniversary of the ADA, but there is more to do to move the largest minority out of poverty and away from social stigma so that their civil rights on paper will also confer economic and social rights in reality.


About the Author

image from www.beacon.orgAn award-winning author of eleven books, including My Sense of SilenceLennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts in the departments of Disability Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Nation, and Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @lendavis.