Overcoming the Barriers Disabled Americans Face

On July 26, it will be 25 years since George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation that prohibited discrimination in employment, public accommodation and a number of other areas.

ThinkstockPhotos-457783527At the time of the signing, the president said …

“I know there may have been concerns that the ADA may be too vague or too costly, or may lead endlessly to litigation. But I want to reassure you right now that my administration and the United States Congress have carefully crafted this Act. We’ve all been determined to ensure that it gives flexibility, particularly in terms of the timetable of implementation; and we’ve been committed to containing the costs that may be incurred … . Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Whether or not that “shameful wall of exclusion” has actually fallen is debatable. But with the release on Wednesday of a study titled the 2015 Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey, there’s now further evidence that people with disabilities are striving to work and are having some success in overcoming many of the barriers that have stood in the way. (Kessler unveiled the results to policymakers on Capitol Hill.)

Take the following finding in this study of 3,013 Americans with disabilities that was commissioned by the West Orange, N.J.-based Kessler Foundation and conducted by the University of New Hampshire: Nearly 69 percent of those surveyed are either working, looking for work or have worked since the onset of the disability.

“This clearly demonstrates that people with disabilities are ready and able to contribute their talents in the workforce,” says Kessler Foundation President and CEO Rodger DeRose.

Diving a little deeper into the data, the researchers found that Americans with disabilities who are employed work an average of 35.5 hours per week, with just over 60 percent of those working more than 40 hours per week.

The research did confirm, as might be expected, that many Americans with disabilities continue to encounter formidable barriers as they look for work, with the top three being the lack of sufficient education or training, employers that assume they can’t do the job and the lack of transportation. Then, once in the workplace, they face hurdles such as getting less pay than others in a similar job, negative attitudes of supervisors and negative attitudes of co-workers.

But, as mentioned earlier, the report does go on to make the point that a substantial percentage of the respondents are successfully overcoming many of these challenges. Of the 36 percent who reported employers assumed they couldn’t do a job, for instance, around 33 percent said they were able to overcome that barrier. Similarly, of the nearly 17 percent who said they were getting less pay than others in similar positions, nearly 39 indicated they were able to surmount that hurdle.

Earlier today, I asked John O’Neill, director  of employment and disability research at the Kessler Foundation, which of the findings surprised him most.

O’Neill specifically cited the finding that transportation may not be as significant a barrier as some have previously contended.

“When people think of barriers to job search, transportation is one of the first things to come to mind,” he says. “Yet of those looking for jobs, only 25 percent said they faced that barrier. Add, on top of that, that 42 percent of those facing that barrier had overcome it, and it would seem to be not as looming an issue as many people might have thought in the past.”

As for a takeaway for HR leaders, O’Neill points to the attitudes of supervisors and co-workers.

Roughly 16 percent of those with disabilities cited they had experienced barriers resulting from supervisors’ attitudes and about the same proportion experienced barriers resulting from co-workers’ attitudes, he says. But when you ask them about their ability to overcome those barriers, he adds, about 41 percent reported they were able to do so and 54 percent reported the same, respectively.

“Those figures,” he says, “are higher than I would have thought—and says that, while they’re [still] issues, people are finding ways to negotiate and work with their supervisors in terms of how they are being perceived.”

There no question a lot more work needs to be done when it comes to ridding the workplace of the many and varying barriers facing those with disabilities. But it’s also nice to see new research suggesting they aren’t insurmountable.