On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. The law’s goal is to ensure equal opportunities for people with disabilities by mandating greater accessibility and reasonable accommodations in public transportation, public institutions, commercial facilities, and federal and local programs. The ADA also regulates employment practices and mandates that employers provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities in the workplace.
When President George H.W. Bush signed the law he had to address concerns from the American public that the broad civil rights law would be “too vague or costly, or may lead endlessly to litigation.” In response, Bush used a line from President Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech to remind Americans of the main goal of the Act, saying, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
Twenty-five years later, there is still significant debate about whether the law in practice is too vague, costly, and encouraging of frivolous lawsuits or unnecessary litigation. But advocates for the disabled state that the law has much further to go in knocking down the barriers people with disabilities may find between them and opportunities for a productive life. Indeed, President Obama’s administration has been expanding the ADA regulations throughout his terms in response to these calls and litigation has not appeared to increase. And as the workforce ages, a full 20% of Americans now qualify as disabled in a way that impacts their daily lives, mobility and employment.
In my experience, the ADA is easily violated by employers, because they are either ignorant of its provisions or they do not understand what it requires. That accommodations must be “reasonable” is an amorphous standard that is both hard for employers to implement and also protects employers from being overly burdened with expensive or unworkable accommodations. But employers usually do not want to spend the money required for reasonable accommodations, and that is where they get into significant trouble. I write about the ADA a lot in my blog because it is the one area that I see the most mistakes and the most resistance for compliance.
Still, I do not know how — if at all — I would change the ADA. Technology has made accommodations easier. Compassion for people’s health or physical wellness is the right thing morally. And I can even make a business case for accommodations because they help employers keep their valuable employees or add valuable disabled employees to their ranks.
Generally, I think it would be a bad idea to regulate accommodations that closely because every situation is unique. More government controls in an attempt to navigate the infinite possibilities will just be a burden on everyone. The ADA is already a heavy hammer for many employers who should be motivated to engage in best practices for their disabled employees. Employers should get advice on how to properly accommodate disabled employees and not wing it, though; and they should not be so recalcitrant when it comes to accommodations.