If you are fortunate enough to work in the disability field, the end of July is a special time of year. It’s when we all come together to celebrate the anniversary of the ADA – the Americans with Disabilities Act – groundbreaking civil rights legislation that opened the doors of possibility and opportunity for millions of Americans with disabilities. The door is certainly open farther today – but there’s much work to do.
What I had not realized when I first joined the National Organization on Disability 11 years ago was that the ADA anniversary was a particularly big deal here. Our honorary chairman is President George H.W. Bush, who signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the interview of President Bush, expertly conducted by our Chairman Tom Ridge in 2015 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the ADA, please do so now. I’ll pause for you to click and watch and then return here. I don’t mind waiting!
We are so fortunate to have these two patriots and gentlemen leading NOD. What’s worthy of note about this year’s ADA anniversary is that it falls on our anniversary. The National Organization on Disability turns 35 this year. NOD built our programs and our reputation in the 1980s, as the nationwide call for a new civil rights law to ensure the full equality of Americans with disabilities began to gain momentum. Disability organizations joined in a campaign for a new disability law – which later would become the ADA. NOD enlisted prominent business leaders to help make the case that hiring people with disabilities is good for business. The CEO Council, founded in 1992 under the chairmanship of BusinessWeek President and NOD Board Member Jack Patten, sponsored a series of conferences across the country to acquaint the business community with ADA requirements. Renamed in 2016, the NOD Corporate Leadership Council is still working actively in corporate America, and includes corporate leaders such as Prudential Financial, Coca-Cola, and Kaiser Permanente.
So it’s easy to see why the ADA is part of our DNA. So, too, is research to support public policy. For many years, Washington policy-makers would rely on our Harris Surveys, conducted like clockwork every four years, examining the gaps that existed between people living with and without disabilities. These surveys measured everything from access to transportation and education to daily quality of life indicators. NOD was proud to be the source of that trusted information that helped shape legislation, including the ADA.
Thirty-five years later, NOD continues to provide those necessary insights, but in a way that is even more closely connected with the #1 challenge facing people with disabilities: employment. Just recently we released the results of the 2017 Disability Employment Tracker™. The Tracker is a free and confidential annual survey measuring companies’ disability inclusion policies and practices to discover how businesses are progressing in their disability inclusion journey. We were thrilled that this year more than 175 companies participated. Together, they employ over 2.4 million workers – so the Tracker really gives us some valuable, real-time data on how well (or not so well) companies are doing right now hiring people with disabilities.
The Tracker tells us certain industries are outperforming others in adopting disability including best practices. For instance, the pharma/biotech (69%) and transportation/utilities (68%) sectors’ overall adoption rates are outpacing manufacturers (56%) and consumer products and retail (46%). What we also know is that progress is slow. Too slow. The most important disability inclusion driver is getting and keeping talent. Yet on average, the workforce representation of people with disabilities is below target across all companies at just 3.2%. The U.S. Labor Department has set a 7% target for companies that do business with Uncle Sam.
The day President Bush signed the ADA on the lawn of the White House 27 years ago, he said companies hold the key to unlocking the true potential of the ADA. We are proud to partner with companies who understand that people with disabilities are often their best workers, the ones who imagine, persevere, overcome challenges and exceed expectations. Yet strangely, major segments of corporate America continue to overlook a pool of available employees who excel in just these ways. People with disabilities spend our lives ignoring discouragement, persisting through setback, solving problems and finding creative routes around obstacles. We are a rich supply of talent, ready to be tapped, at a time when talent is at a premium.
So while this is a time of year to celebrate, it’s also a time for a gut check. We need to do better. And those dark clouds on the horizon that foreshadow massive cuts to Medicaid are not helping. Such cuts would have enormously negative impacts to employment for people with disabilities, who rely on Medicaid for transportation and other critical employment services. Let’s take time to celebrate the ADA anniversary while doubling down on our efforts to unlock that potential. I assure you that my colleagues at NOD are standing by eager to help.