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Has The ADA Broken Its Economic Promises To People With Disabilities?

In 1984, Donna Walton was working as a news assistant at a newspaper in Washington, D.C., when she decided she wanted to learn more about the production of the paper. She requested a transfer and got one, arranging the artwork and graphics on the newspaper pages every day. There was just one problem: The job required her to stand for long periods of time, which was difficult because of her prosthetic leg. She asked if she could take breaks to sit, but her employers refused. Soon after, she lost her job.

Walton said she’ll never know for sure if — as she suspects — she was fired because of her disability, but she doubts that her experience would have been the same today. “There was nothing in place to protect individuals,” she said. “We didn’t have any power against employers.”

That was 31 years ago, six years before Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was a landmark piece of legislation that banned employers from discriminating based on disability and mandated access to government services as well as public facilities like buildings and transportation. This year is its 25th anniversary, and advocates are taking stock of whether the ADA has achieved its goals of equal opportunity and access. What it doesn’t seem to have done: improve employment and overall economic conditions for disabled Americans.

When it was passed, the law was touted as a way to help millions of disabled Americans into the workforce. But today working-age people with disabilities are twice as likely as other Americans to be poor, and they’re also substantially more likely to be unemployed.

Indeed, according to Richard Burkhauser, a professor of policy analysis at Cornell University, the employment rate has dropped since the passage of the ADA. According to one Census Bureau measure, only 14 percent of working-age Americans with a work-limiting disability were employed in 2013, compared with 29 percent in 1990. The same measure found that nearly one-third (32 percent) of working-age Americans with work-limiting disabilities lived below the poverty line in 2013, compared with 28 percent in 1990.

Al Powers, who served as chairman of the City Disability Commission in Worcester, Massachusetts, on and off between 1981 and 2007, said he’s not surprised that the data continues to show a bleak picture. “Lack of employment is a huge issue for people with disabilities, but so is underemployment, particularly for people like me who are educated,” he said. Powers, who has cerebral palsy, believes that he was sidelined into a lower-paying job in 1988, two years before the passage of the ADA. Despite his best efforts, he wasn’t promoted for another decade. The problem, he said, was that although he knew he was sacrificing potential income by sticking with the job, he also needed the job he had. “I had two small children at home, and I couldn’t afford to risk my health insurance,” he said. “I think it’s like that for a lot of disabled people. Employers can keep you in lower positions because they know you can’t quit over some injustice.”

However, some scholars and activists say that the situation is not as dire as Burkhauser claims and that the ADA deserves more credit for improving disabled people’s economic circumstances. They say the numbers underestimate the actual number of disabled people in the workforce. That’s because unlike other demographic markers like race, disability can change throughout a person’s life, which makes it difficult to measure. People can become temporarily disabled when they break a bone but shed the label when they heal; aging inevitably brings physical disabilities that weren’t present in youth; and people may choose not to identify with the category at all, even if others consider them disabled.

The Census Bureau’s trend question — the only one they’ve asked since the 1980s — measures what it calls “work disability” by asking respondents whether they had a disability or health condition that limited their ability to work. But as many have pointed out since the late 1990s, this approach is potentially flawed. “If employers make a job more accessible, if they provide accommodations, then maybe my health condition doesn’t limit me any more,” said Douglas Kruse, a professor of management and labor relations at Rutgers University. “The question wouldn’t capture me because I wouldn’t say I had a work disability.” Walton said she’s ambivalent about the question for exactly that reason. “When I’m wearing my prosthetic leg, I can do most things,” she said. “But if you remove it, I’m going to need a lot of help. My ability to function depends on the context.”

Because of these criticisms, the work-limitation question has been dropped from data sets like the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which began to use a different approach from the work-limitation question in 2008. This new technique found that in 2013, 35 percent of working-age people with any disability — not necessarily one that was work-limiting — were employed in any capacity and 22 percent were employed full time all year. Those are more hopeful numbers but still far lower than the 77 percent of Americans without a disability who were employed in any capacity in 2013 and the 57 percent who were employed full time all year.

Researchers have also consistently found that wages are lower for people with disabilities, which can help explain why even someone with a job might have trouble making ends meet. This varies substantially based on disability type. A study published last year using 2011 ACS data found that people with sensory disabilities like blindness and deafness had the smallest earnings gap compared with people without disabilities, while people with multiple disabilities and cognitive disabilities had the largest.

The question is whether the ADA is actually responsible for the earnings gap and the gloomy employment numbers. Some researchers have hypothesized that the fear of being sued under the ADA had a negative impact on employers’ willingness to hire people with disabilities. But Burkhauser said he’s reluctant to blame the ADA. The likelier culprit for the low employment numbers, according to him, is the country’s approach to disability benefits, which he said creates an incentive for people to stay out of the workforce by putting caps on the amount that people can earn and save.

Doug, a 52-year-old Iowa resident who asked to be referred to by only his first name because he doesn’t want to be be judged negatively by future employers, agrees. He’s been receiving disability benefits since 1992, after injuring his back on the job as an air-conditioner installer. He also has a learning disability and said that subsequent employers thought he was a “slow worker.” He worked as a security guard and as a janitor for Wal-Mart, all for minimum wage, but couldn’t hold down a job for more than a year. Now, he wants to be working part time but said he’s afraid of losing his government-provided medical benefits if he makes too much money. “I can’t save up money, and I can’t make more than a certain amount, or I’d lose my income and my medical benefits,” he told me. “And I’m not sure at this point that my body can handle a full-time job, so it feels like a big risk.”

Overall, Doug thinks things have gotten better since the passage of the ADA. “Employers think in terms of whether you can do the job now,” he said. “In 1992, ‘disabled’ meant you could do a typing job and that was it. Today, they’re open to thinking about disabled people in other roles.”

But clearly, it will take more than the passage of an anti-discrimination act to make the employment numbers among Americans with disabilities rise. Instead, the answer may be to create more incentives for employers to rehabilitate workers on the job so that they are less likely to go on disability in the first place — or to expand the network of social service benefits available to disabled people, like home health care workers, so that they have more time and mobility to pursue employment opportunities. “When people look at the ADA and say, ‘Why hasn’t employment gone up?’ — well, it wasn’t an employment statute,” Kruse said. “Anti-discrimination was really just the beginning. The question to be asking now is: What can we do next?”

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.