Inaccessibility in the Workforce: Where the Americans with Disabilities Act Didn’t Do Enough

July 26, 2023

Lindsay Ratcliffe standing in front of a large staircase.

Lindsay Ratcliffe standing in front of a large staircase.

By Lindsay Ratcliffe, ’26

It’s been 33 years since George W. Bush passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26th, 1990, and it still isn’t enough for disabled individuals trying to live their lives. The passing of the ADA was a major success on the legal front for disabled Americans but there are still many parts of our society that are in violation of the ADA, especially if you turn your focus to the workforce.

Title I of the ADA states that “No covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.”

While this is great in concept, many barriers still exist when trying to find a job. We are required to look at if the building is accessible—are there stairs? are there accessible bathrooms?—how far it may be if the job is on-site, and more. Job opportunities are one of the hardest things to come by for disabled individuals, let alone at the same rate of hire as their peers.

In the United States the unemployment rate for persons with a disability is twice as high as those without a disability. This is likely from the incredible bias that is displayed by many employers. They often automatically assume that people with disabilities are unable to work or accomplish a job as effectively as their abled coworkers. Yet, there is also research showing that companies who hire disabled people have a higher retention rate, therefore lowering the costs of their turnover rates.

Finding a job as a disabled individual is unbelievably difficult. And there are many potential problems related to, yet separate from, the job itself—such as transportation.

Public transportation is inaccessible to many in the United States. From city buses, to cabs, to now privately owned cars being used for platforms such as Uber and Lyft, challenges are always present for disabled people. Luckily, the United States currently has a bill (H.R. 3845 and S. 1813) going through Capitol Hill in regards to making public transportation more accessible. This is a crucial step forward that the U.S. needs to make. According to the World Health Organization, “Persons with disabilities find inaccessible and unaffordable transportation 15 times more difficult than those without disabilities.”

New York City (NYC) is a prime example of this problem in the United States. NYC is expecting 61 million people to visit during 2023, yet only 27% (126) of its infamous subways’ 472 stops have ramps and elevators making it fully accessible. After two lawsuits were filed on this basis, the subway has committed to making it 95% accessible in the following 33 years (by 2055). Still, that’s another 32 years until one of the most populated cities in the U.S. becomes close to accessible. That’s not enough.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that up to 1 in 4 adults in the United States (27 percent) have some type of disability. That means that over a quarter of the country’s population, not to mention anyone that may be visiting the Big Apple from another country, may not be able to use the New York Subway. This is a highly trafficked city and mode of transportation, so why would smaller cities, with less visitors, have made any changes? The simple answer is they haven’t. That’s why we need action to make the workforce more accessible for disabled individuals.

So, how do you make a difference?

  1. Help make places more accommodating. Talk to owners of places you frequent to tell them they need to make their place of business more accessible.
  2. Update how you communicate. We live in an era where digital advocacy is important. If you post images make sure you add alternate text and provide as many accessible options as you can.
  3. If there is a conversation about disability rights, include someone who is disabled. “Nothing About Us Without Us” needs to be more than a saying.
  4. Donate to a charity like the National Disability Rights Network that helps to take action against a variety of issues facing disabled people.
  5. Write or email your public officials and voice your concerns about lack of access. This will help bring the discussion to their attention and show them people care about it.
  6. Take action. If you see someone displaying bias towards someone who is disabled, help them confront it in the best way you can.

We, as a community, have been fighting one injustice at a time as the problem became more prominent. It’s time to change course. “The disability rights agenda has to be about more than reacting to particular injustices— it has to be an integral part of how humanity imagines its future.” Progress being made in regards to disability rights is at risk of reversing. I wish that surprised me. After all, how is something supposed to progress if we are given no opportunities in the workforce, something so vital to living an independent life in America?

So, I challenge you. Speak up, speak out. Confront the injustices you see and have a conversation with the people who can make the needed changes. The progress we have made with the ADA in place can’t fail now. We have come too far and helped too many people. As the late disability advocate Judy Heumann said, “Our anger was a fury sparked by profound injustices. Wrongs that deserved ire. And with that rage we ripped a hole in the status quo.”

I’m angry. I want to rip the status quo in half so people like me don’t have to write pieces like this in the future, demanding for our rights and to merely have access to buildings. We claim that America is the land of the free, but how is it free if over a quarter of the population can’t move around or face an unbiased workforce?

Lindsay Ratcliffe is a rising sophomore at Albion College and an English and Political Science double major. She stays busy on campus with roles in the Student Volunteer Bureau, Diversability, the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program, and as a sister of Kappa Delta Sorority.  Lindsay hopes to continue learning about how to advocate for disability equality.

The views expressed here represent those of the author and not necessarily of Albion College.