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  • Writer's pictureMeg O'Connell

The ADA Turned 30: So, What's Next?

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Background image of people working with a sign in front that says "what's next/"
What's Next?

On Sunday July 26th, we celebrated the milestone of the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the most basic terms, the ADA is the civil rights legislation eliminating discrimination and increasing access and opportunity for people with disabilities.

The past 30 years have provided our nation with some major achievements in access and inclusion. But as we celebrate this anniversary, we must see it for what it is: a birthday, a milestone, a time for reflection and for setting new goals.

What it is not is a finish line.

Let’s take a look at the top 3 components of the ADA that launched disability inclusion efforts in our country and began to level the playing field.

1. Employment: The ADA prohibited public and private employers, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job applications, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job training, and other privileges of employment. People with disabilities now had access to competitive employment.

2. Access to Public Places: The ADA required the removal of architectural barriers that prevented people with disabilities from entering public places like banks, restaurants, shops, movie theatres, places of worship and any other location that brings people together. The ADA enabled people with disabilities to participate in their communities in ways they had been previously excluded because they were built for “able-bodied” people.

3. Transportation: The ADA required that public and private transportation companies must provide access for individuals with disabilities. This was a game changer for many with disabilities who could now, sometimes for the first time, ride a bus, or train, or airplane. This, along with access to public places, meant people with disabilities could move more freely around their cities and have transportation to and from work.

The ADA is now 30, and, much has been accomplished, but things are far from perfect.

While there has been a lot of work and effort spent toward improving employment opportunities, we still have a long way to go. The current unemployment rate in the U.S. is 11%, but for those with disabilities it is 16.5%. Add to this consistent employment gap the fact that people with disabilities are anxious about discussing disability with employers for fear of discrimination, and potential negative impacts to their long-term employability.

Not every public space has “good” access. It’s not uncommon to go to a restaurant that claims to be accessible only to discover a 3-inch step prevents access, or to find “accessible” means using a back/side door that sometimes has patrons going through the kitchen to get to their table.

Transportation is much improved. But there are still many instances of people with disabilities being refused access. In late June, the transportation company Lyft had to settle with the Department of Justice for Disability discrimination. This is just one example, but there are dozens more.

Yet, despite these shortcomings there is positive change. We are starting to see a shift from a focus on civil rights for people with disabilities to a focus on disability innovation.

The past 30 years have laid the ground-work to change the way the world perceives disability, and I have a few predictions of what we will celebrate at the 50th anniversary of the ADA.

2040: ADA 50th Anniversary Predictions

1. Disability Centric Design: Products, Services, Buildings etc. Disability will be a central focus in designing products, services, buildings, communities, and housing. Designing for disability will become basic protocol to ensure access and inclusion at project inception. The mindset will be, “if it’s good for disability, it is good for everyone.” Think curb cuts and automatic doors, both were designed to improve access for people with disabilities. But they benefit everyone – moms with strollers, travelers with luggage, and shoppers getting to their cars.

The majority of global companies will adopt disability design principles and there will be a shift in products and services focusing on access and inclusion. There is already some movement today, and Microsoft provides a good example. Microsoft is one of the first companies to have a Chief Accessibility Officer who leads a team focused on access in product development based largely on feedback from customers with disabilities.

In 20 years, we look forward to this being a foundational design platform, with100s of companies designing for disability.

2. Disability Employment: A Strategic Imperative. Disability will drive innovation. As companies shift to design for disability more employees with disabilities will be required to lend their voice, experience and perspective. As companies build their disability capabilities employees will need to develop disability competencies. Disability inclusion is a discipline with clear principles and skills that are required for success. Companies will invest in developing their teams to ensure they understand disability in the workplace and the marketplace.

3. Disability IS Normal: By the year 2040, I predict disability will finally be viewed as a normal part of the life experience. Similar to going bald, turning grey, or having wrinkles. There are many talented people working on this vision today, and the benefits will be seen in our future. There are 11 new tv shows for children that feature characters with a disability. Major brands like Nordstrom, Ulta Beauty, Target, Third Love, IceMule Coolers, and Zappo’s feature models with disabilities. And actors with disabilities are portraying characters with disabilities. All of this helps normalize disability and we will soon say “disability, so what?”.

So, Happy Birthday, ADA! Your arrival was welcomed by millions.

There were resisters and detractors along the way, but your many supporters, advocates, activists and believers helped create change. You provided the tools and in some cases the teeth to change the way America interacts with people with disabilities. So, to this I say, Thank You. We are excited for what has been accomplished, and we are ready to help make big things happen for your 50th Birthday! #ADA30 #AreYouReadyForWhatsNext?


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