When Tony Coelho wrote the American with Disabilities Act 31 years ago, his goal was to ensure that people with disabilities had equal opportunities for inclusion and success in the labor market.
Three decades later, people with disabilities – the largest minority group in the country – are still underrepresented, especially in the federal workforce.
Four years ago, the government set a benchmark asking each agency to commit to making no less than 12% of their workforce from people with disabilities. But even that number fell below par since 26% of American adults, or 61 million people, have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It has also proven difficult to follow the government’s progress. Despite the 12% benchmark, the Office of Personnel Management “does not routinely track or report retention data of employees with disabilities”, according to the Government Accountability Office. Some of the clearest numbers come from a 2020 GAO report that found that while hiring of people with disabilities rose from 2011 to 2017, more work needs to be done to promote retention, education, and reasonable accommodation .
Coelho says progress has been made: almost every presidential candidate presented a disability policy plan in the 2020 elections. For the first time, there are sign language interpreters for every press conference in the White House, and the White House Home Affairs Council has its first director of disability policy.
But proponents say it’s important to keep the momentum going. The government, as the country’s largest employer, has been a model workplace for people with disabilities for decades even before the ADA was signed. The Biden administration has promised that its attitudes and appointments will reflect what America looks like, but proponents say change doesn’t just go beyond hiring practices – it will be measured by changes in workplace culture, how people with disabilities are perceived, and on Building jobs that deal with accessibility within the framework of equity and inclusion.
Some workers say they are on an uneven field of play
On July 26, 1990, President George HW Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Barry Thumma / AP
When President George HW Bush signed the ADA 31 years ago this month, the law required reasonable arrangements to be made for people with disabilities to do the essentials of their jobs.
But Cindy Otis says that didn’t happen to her.
Otis, a former CIA analyst and wheelchair user, says that in her 10-year career with the CIA, she has faced a number of obstacles within the agency that made it difficult to perform basic aspects of her job. She says she also had the added stress of not addressing too many of these limitations for fear of being seen as plaintive or less capable than her peers.
Early in her career, Otis said she had to call for help on several occasions to open a heavy vault door that could not be opened from a seated position. Then, she says, she was told that when she asked to be let in every day, she began to annoy people and that she should avoid being seen as a “troublemaker”.
“As a brand new, desperate kid, straight out of school with mountains of student debt, I already felt my job and reputation were in jeopardy because it took them six months to install an automatic door opener on my vault door,” says Otis. “Right from the start you are placed on an uneven playing field.”
Even the simplest fixes took years to implement, says Otis. There were not enough disabled parking spaces. Cabins where staff worked did not have enough space to move their wheelchairs, making communication with colleagues in the vicinity difficult. When she left the CIA, there was still no handicapped accessible bathroom on her side of the building.
Otis says the challenges she faced became more and more strenuous and ultimately was one of the reasons she decided to leave the CIA in 2017.
The accessibility of the technology can also be an issue
Kristin Fleschner, who worked at both the Foreign Ministry and the CIA and left the federal workforce in 2019, described similar barriers and frustrations.
Fleschner, who is blind, says she sometimes came in late at night where she had to wait an hour for security to let her in to write a letter because she couldn’t reach certain doors with rotary locks. She also says that some of the computers used in some of the agencies did not contain assistive technologies “because it is believed that if these are added there could be a higher security risk.”
She recently worked with Inclusive America group on a proposed executive order that would improve access to technology in the intelligence community.
“Information security remains the most important goal,” says Fleschner, “but we try to give authorities the opportunity to prioritize accessibility alongside information security regulations.”
In a statement to NPR, a spokesman for the bureau of the director of the National Intelligence Agency, which oversees intelligence agencies, said promoting “greater diversity, justice and inclusion” was a “top priority” for National Intelligence Director Avril Haines .
“As she said, the intelligence community should promote an environment in which every professional can be successful. This is fundamental to America’s values and critical to fulfilling them [intelligence community’s] Mission.”
Roger Sternitzke, head of the Diversity and Inclusion Office at the CIA, said the agency is “committed to providing the accessibility our officials deserve”. He added that the agency “improves the accessibility of our facilities and technology around the world and increases awareness of disabilities among our entire workforce”.
Otis says some of the attitudes she has experienced stemmed from the fact that disability is a burden in the workplace.
“If that person is disabled, you don’t have to overcome that as an organization. You just have to provide the resources to do the job they were hired to do, which is protecting the country,” she said.
“[Disability] is a facet of the human being. And in some cases it can even be an asset, ”says Otis.
What does progress look like?
In June, President Biden signed a comprehensive executive order aimed at enhancing diversity, equal opportunity, inclusion and accessibility in government by expanding recruitment, training and retention efforts and introducing a more data-driven approach to diversifying the federal workforce.
Coelho says the next step needs to be a stronger emphasis on enforcement.
“I always say the ADA is a great law, but if there is no enforcement it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a piece of paper. And execute commands are the same. They are just a piece of paper unless there is enforcement. “
Maria Town, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, says 31 years after the ADA, measuring progress means recognizing all the places where people with disabilities are in society – including the White House.
She is encouraged in some areas. Town found that 3% of Biden administration officers are people with disabilities, and while she still called this “very low”, she notes that this is the first time data is ever available to to keep track of things.
But she says the pandemic has exposed glaring weaknesses in other areas. She points out how the disabled community has been pushing for more homework opportunities for decades.
“It’s frustrating that the disabled community has been pushing for these shelters for so long and being so consistently rejected, and when the moment comes when everyone has to work remotely, it happens instantly.”
“I think that’s a sign of how far we have to go,” says Town.
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