25 Years After the ADA: Blind Still Missing from the Workforce

07/21/2015

Struggles to achieve equality are never completely won.

Allegations of bias and the tragic stain of racist violence dominate headlines decades after the Civil Rights Act was signed. American women strive—still—for equal pay in the workplace. And even as LGBT Americans celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of same-sex marriage, the response in some sectors of the country signals that their fight for acceptance is far from over.

The lesson, always, is that no law or court decision promising equality can deliver as intended without a sustained, collective effort to follow through on its protections.

At a moment when “equality” is very much on the minds of Americans, it’s fitting that we’ve arrived at the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

By any measure, the ADA stands as a watershed for the advancement of disabled persons into the mainstream of American life. Signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, the law expanded civil rights protections to a broad spectrum of Americans, from individuals with vision loss to injured veterans to those living with HIV.

In addition to barring discrimination in employment, the ADA for the first time required that private employers provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities. In addition, the law established accessibility requirements for public transportation, businesses that cater to the public, and even websites. As a result, we have more braille and large-print signage and better-designed retail websites, which have given us access to the mainstream.

One of the key goals of the law was to open doors to viable employment for people with disabilities. In doing so, it would encourage greater recognition of the disabled community as a talent resource. And that evolution in perception is critical, because true equality comes when individuals who have lost sight or hearing or mobility are nonetheless viewed as equally capable – by employers, by the larger community, by disabled people themselves.

Twenty-five years later, those of us who advocated for ADA are proud of the progress that’s been made. It’s headline news when a person with vision loss becomes a CEO or rises to public office. Those are high-profile victories and they are all too rare. But perhaps even more significant are the everyday jobs being done by data processors, administrative assistants, medical technicians, service industry workers, sales professionals, and teachers. Each day, the list of jobs that are considered beyond the capabilities of visually impaired people grows exponentially shorter.

Has the ADA made a difference? Absolutely. Today there more and more employers who are setting aside bias and negative assumptions and saying “yes” to a qualified applicants. Unfortunately, these successes make the pace of progress all the more frustrating.

Sadly, the workforce participation rate among people who are blind or visually impaired is only 36 percent, just half that of the general population.

In real terms, it means that the vast majority of working-age people who are visually impaired are still missing from the workforce. Without work, they cannot be independent. Without independence, social equality remains an abstraction — a goal forever out of reach — and our employers are deprived of our talents, skills, and valuable insights.

We can do better.

For starters, employers and human resources directors need more and better information about how employees with vision loss do their jobs. Recent surveys show that employers are critically underinformed about accommodations that can help their disabled employees to adapt and succeed. Many fear the financial cost and perceived inconvenience of accommodating visually impaired workers.

The American Foundation for the Blind works nationally to bring vision loss practitioners and researchers together with employers to share the latest developments in accessible technology. Modest workplace modifications, from improved lighting to computer software that “speaks” the content displayed on the screen, are often all that is needed to ensure productive employment for a person with vision loss. In most cases, the cost to employers is not prohibitive and adaptations can be implemented with few transition pains.

Yet with each step forward, the clearer one sees the great distance our nation needs to travel in order to achieve full compliance with the law and adequately accommodate the blind and visually impaired community.

It isn’t a question of whether we can do this. The technologies are here and advancing by the day. People with vision loss are eager for greater independence and the opportunity to contribute to their communities and the economic health of their country.

We can do it, but only if we have the will. On this 25th anniversary of ADA, our government, the private sector, vision loss professionals — all of us — must recommit to implementing its protections. We must if the U.S. is to meet its sworn obligations to people with visual impairments and to all Americans with disabilities. We too are entitled to equality.