Disabled workers still benefit from anti-discrimination law

Disability discrimination complaints are increasing, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act.


Bill Radke: It's been 20 years since the first President Bush signed the landmark anti-discrimination law, the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law lowered the barriers at stores and workplaces
for consumers and employees who use wheelchairs or have other physical disabilities. When the ADA was being debated back in 1990, businesses lobbied against it. They were worried about the cost of accommodating disabled workers and customers. So how are they feeling 20 years on? Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports from Washington.

John Dimsdale: The benefits from the disability act, from wider store aisles to lower light switches to audible elevator signals, helped everyone. But there are no reliable studies on how much businesses have spent on these accommodations, and that makes any cost-benefit analysis impossible.

Anecdotally, though, Peter Blanck believes the price has been reasonable. Blanck is chairman of the Global Universal Design Commission, which comes up with and promotes accessibility standards for buildings.

Peter Blanck: Well I'm certainly not aware of a single company that has been put out of business because people with disabilities have been participating in the workforce. The economic benefits are great in terms of productivity, injury prevention and of course including workers in the workforce.

Randel Johnson: Personally I'd like to say its one of my more prouder achievements.

Randel Johnson was a congressional staffer who worked on the legislation in 1990. Now he supervises labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He agrees the disabilities act was worthwhile, although there are still problems with what he calls drive-by lawsuits.

Johnson: Lawyers will find a plaintiff and a merchant who is technically out of compliance, say the size of the bathroom is not quite right or the size of the entrance is an inch off and that small businessman is forced to settle. So one improvement we'd like to see is if there's a problem let's give the small employer, small merchant a chance to correct the problem.

Disability discrimination complaints are increasing according to the enforcer of the disabilities act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were more than 19,000 cases in 2008. And chair Jacqueline Berrien expects more as the workforce ages.

Jacqueline Berrien: Some of the disabilities that might require accommodation are sometimes associated with age. For example, whether its visual impairments, limited mobility, some of those things may be more common among older workers.

Berrien says businesses have come to support the Disabilities Act because she says tearing down barriers has given them access to a broader range of qualified employees.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.


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