As we look for bright spots in this challenging year, many of us are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark legislation that increases access and opportunity for people with disabilities, including employment.
Like the foundational civil rights laws that came before it, the ADA was and remains a shining example of America in action, the result of leaders from both within and outside of government coming together to increase access and opportunity for Americans with disabilities.
Today, the importance of their efforts resonates louder than ever, because capitalizing on the talents of all segments of the population, including people with disabilities, will be essential for our economic recovery and growth in the coming months.
A Focus on Flexibility
This year of all years, we have seen how important flexibility is for both workers and employers. The idea that workers with disabilities, like me, must have access to the supports they need to be productive is now a concept that applies universally to all workers. Everyone has had to learn to adapt and figure out how to work best in the face of the coronavirus.
Accommodations are essentially about flexibility in how we work. It might be when we work, where we work, the tools we use to work, or all of the above. The pandemic has shown us that this is also a way to approach work for all employees. Asking “what do you need to work your best?” seems commonplace now. Of course, accommodations are also key to the ADA’s provisions prohibiting discrimination in programs and services offered by public entities, including America’s cities.
Through the State Exchange on Employment and Disability (SEED) initiative, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy engages with states to eliminate barriers and improve access and opportunity for people with disabilities. Over the past year, we’ve expanded SEED’s efforts to the local level, working with the National League of Cities and other organizations to share information and resources with municipal policymakers.
Honoring the Anniversary
In this spirit, public officials can celebrate the ADA’s 30th anniversary by reaffirming their commitment to increasing access and opportunity for people with disabilities. Our cities are important local partners and mayors have a strong voice in their local communities. Outreach ideas include, but are not limited to:
- Creating an ADA proclamation or statement — Mayors can issue a proclamation or statement recognizing the importance of the ADA and affirming their city’s commitment to creating an inclusive workplace culture for people with disabilities. Across the country, many mayors issued proclamations commemorating the anniversary on July 26, 2020, including Mayor Corey Woods of Tempe, AZ and Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC.
- Signing “city as a model employer” mayoral orders — Cities should model an inclusive workplace culture. One strategy is “city as a model employer” policies, akin to “state as model employer” policies implemented by many state governments. Last year, in honor of the ADA’s 29th anniversary, Deputy Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella sent a letter to governors encouraging them to collect data on the numbers of state employees with disabilities to better assess their efforts in this regard.
- Launching or sponsoring a city apprenticeship, internship, or fellowship program — Mayors and councilmembers can sign executive orders or pass legislation or resolutions establishing an apprenticeship, internship, or fellowship program within city agencies for students with disabilities. Mayors can also recruit interns with disabilities to their teams. For example, The New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) is carrying out numerous initiatives to support the advancement of individuals with disabilities in the workforce through work-based learning opportunities, including NYC: ATWORK and the abilITy Training Academy.
- Reaching out to local media — Mayors and other policymakers can write an op-ed or letter to the editor about the value and talent people with disabilities offer their community’s workplaces, or encourage local TV or radio news to run a feature on local employers with a demonstrated commitment to disability inclusion.
The ADA’s 30th anniversary comes at an unprecedented time for our nation. As policymakers plan and implement policies in response to the coronavirus, they must ensure they are consistent with and facilitate the implementation of the ADA and other disability-related laws. This way, we can continue protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities and continue increasing access and opportunity for the next 30 years and beyond.
About the Author
Jennifer Sheehy is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.