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ADA Anniversary a Reminder about Disability in the Workplace

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against Americans who have a disability. The aim of the act is to ensure that all people can participate in their communities and in society at large. With the 33rd anniversary of the act on July 26, the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability in Cornell’s ILR School is sharing tips related to the ADA and employment:

Disability is not always obvious

A person communicating through a sign language interpreter clearly has a disability, but many people have a less noticeable disability. This can include many conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, learning disabilities and seizure disorder. 

Disability under the act includes any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities and that is expected to last for at least several months. This definition of disability differs from other legal definitions, such as those used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the U.S. Social Security Administration. The ADA was amended in 2008 to encourage broad coverage of Americans with disabilities under the law. It urges us to focus on preventing discrimination and providing appropriate accommodations rather than worrying if someone is qualified for coverage under the law. 

Job interviews and disability

During a job interview, it is against the law to ask if the job candidate has a disability or ask leading questions where the answer would reveal a disability. For example, asking if the candidate is currently taking any medications or if they have ever used workers’ compensation is not allowed.

Job accommodations

If an employee mentions that a change is needed to the way they work because of a disability, ADA-based regulations say that the employer must provide an accommodation. An appropriate reasonable accommodation will depend on the person, the task they are performing, and the environment in which they work. Typical examples are a modified break schedule or a modified desk. According to the Job Accommodation Network, the average cost of a one-time accommodation was $300 in 2019–2022. Employers and employees should work together to find a solution that works for both parties. 

Is the ADA enough?

According to Wendy Strobel Gower, director of the Northeast ADA Center, the ADA is “a start on ensuring that people with disabilities are included at work.” The ADA provides employers with a backbone of laws and regulations to assist with including people with disabilities, Strobel Gower said. But, as the act ages through its fourth decade, employers have realized that just following the act and other employment-related laws does not ensure that job seekers and employees with disabilities are fully included in workplace culture, she said. Specific efforts around disability inclusion allow employers to hire from a broader talent pool and retain more employees as they advance in their careers. These efforts create a win-win for the employer and the employee.

Strobel Gower said, “When employers embrace the equity and inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace, their business can take advantage of the resilience of a population that thrives in a world that is not built for them. They capitalize on expanded talent pools and can tap into our nation’s third largest market group. Proactively employing people with disabilities helps businesses gain a better understanding of how to meet the needs of this expanding customer base.” 

BenchmarkABILITY is a free assessment tool for employers

Employers can use the free  BenchmarkABILITY website to self-assess their disability inclusion efforts and get advice. Susanne Bruyère, the institute’s academic director, explains that the site “has been used by hundreds of HR professionals and other workplace professionals to determine where to focus their workplace disability inclusion efforts.” BenchmarkABILITY is published by the Yang-Tan Institute.

Where to go for more information

Resources published by Yang-Tan Institute projects include:

Providing practical information to employers, policymakers and others who assist people with disabilities is a core focus for the Yang-Tan Institute. The Yang-Tan Institute conducts a unique combination of research and outreach. With a mission of advancing the inclusion and full participation of people with disabilities in the workplace and community, the institute’s research, training and technical resources expand knowledge about disability inclusion, leading to meaningful change. The institute currently has over a dozen active projects, including the Northeast ADA Center, BenchmarkABILITY and the Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN) on Disability Inclusion