It may be hard to remember where you were personally on July 26, 1990 and perhaps you weren’t even born yet, but to identify where people with disabilities were prior to the signing of the American’s with Disabilities Act is fairly easy to do. There were few protections for access to public services such as cabs, restaurants, or stores. Elevators didn’t have braille, apartment complexes had steps, and if a person with a disability was working, it was the exception, rather than the rule. Unless you worked for the government, your employer or potential employer did not have to offer any accommodations and few employers understood the benefit to diversifying their workforce. Most employers thought diversity meant hiring people of different races. Assistive or access technology was a relatively new industry and many people with disabilities were not able to afford the technology that would help them to work and live more independently. Prior to the passing of the ADA, people with disabilities didn’t know they could ask for an accommodation, nor did they necessarily know what to ask for.
Fast forward through a little more than 2.5 decades and the picture is a bit different. The expectation of employment for people with disabilities is the norm not the exception today. Because of this expectation, the educational systems that prepare young people to go to work have changed and although we still do not live in a perfect world, the availability of access technology has significantly increased. Does this mean that everyone with a disability who wants to work is employed? Unfortunately, no. However, the protections put in place by the ADA in 1990 and the subsequent revisions and regulations give you, as a person with vision loss, a platform from which to start.
Employers must offer accommodations throughout the hiring process to anyone who discloses a disability. There are resources for employers to help them know their responsibilities and for you to know your rights, when you are an applicant or an employee. There’s more awareness in the general public of the abilities of people with disabilities and again, although it’s not perfect, it is more common to see people in the workplace with disabilities and we know there are many more with hidden disabilities working now as well.
Change does not happen overnight, or over a couple of decades, but nevertheless progress is being made. As we celebrate the anniversary of the historic civil rights legislation for people with disabilities, we must strive for a tomorrow where similarities among people are noticed rather than differences, and everyone is given the chance to reach their full potential.