The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has the most far-reaching impact on the U.S. workplace since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet many Americans are confused about the myriad details of ADA and are uncertain how to refer to those with disabilities. This article unravels the confusion and uncertainty.
Most of us are savvy enough to avoid such obviously demeaning terms as crippled, blind as a bat, etc.
But what’s this person with a disability business? What’s wrong with disabled person? [Or blind man, deaf woman, a paraplegic, etc.]
What’s wrong with it is that it focuses on the disability, rather than on the person and his/her abilities. The disability may indeed be relevant, e.g., in providing reasonable accommodation, but it is secondary in importance to the person: as a human being and as a qualified employee with job skills.
It’s a new habit for many of us, but it’s worth the minor effort. So:
- Engineer with a hearing impairment, not deaf engineer
- Accountant in a wheelchair, not wheelchair-bound accountant
- Manager who is blind, not blind manager, etc.
Or, simply: John, Mary, Ms. Jones, etc.
[By the way, handicapped also may not be an appropriate term. Many people believe it derives from 19th century England, when persons with disabilities were forced to beg on the streets, with cap in hand.]
This discussion about language brings to light the first of our…
4 Core Concepts
Concept #1: Focus on ability!
The image we hold in our mind to underscore this concept is Stephen Hawking, who has an extremely disabling affliction … and is perhaps the most able person on the planet!
Notice disability only it as may impact performing essential job functions or as requested by the person. [For more on this term ‘essential,’ see our “The Meaning of Qualified” article.]
Concept #2: Challenge assumptions, prejudgment & fear!
And virtually all of us have them, at least regarding disabilities with which we’ve had little or no experience.
Stephen Hawking, for example, is unusual in appearance and his unaided speech virtually impossible to understand. This may bring up feelings of fear and discomfort.
But our primary image for this concept is someone else: Christopher Reeve. After his accident in 1995, which left him paralyzed from the neck down, most people assumed his career was over.
He certainly challenged those assumptions — going on to deliver his most distinguished performances as an actor and director. His greatest achievement, however, was as a spokesman for people with disabilities and advocate for medical research.
Bringing this concept into the workplace, here’s a true story we heard recently:
A person in a wheelchair (and with no use of his hands) applied for a clerk typist position. The HR Manager put his assumptions on hold and told him simply that a typing test was required. The applicant leaned back in his wheelchair and proceeded to type 100 wpm … with his toes!
Which takes us to our third concept…
Concept #3: Focus on what is to be done … not how or when!
As you’ll see, this gets to the essence of reasonable accommodation and impacts job descriptions, pre-employment inquiries, scheduling and day-to-day interactions. As you do this, you may need to…
Concept #4: Challenge tradition!
This relates back to the Casey Martin case, described in our “Understanding the ADA” article. [Casey Martin is a former NCAA golf champion with a disability requiring a golf cart to get around the course. That was OK with the NCAA, but not with the PGA Tour … until a controversial ADA-based court ruling (upheld by the Supreme Court in 2001).]
We believe that most of the controversy surrounding it stems from a challenge to a tradition of professional golf — real golfers walk the course. The lesson to be learned is that the courts expect employers to change their traditions of how the work is performed, if necessary to comply with the ADA.
In working with employers, and with their employees, we’ve found that the greatest single barrier to ADA compliance is this issue – clinging to traditions. Even those which are not necessary to the performance of essential job functions or to accomplishing the mission of the organization.
Think about the traditions of your organization and the professions in it. Which of them are getting in the way of ADA compliance and, reflecting back to the previous key, of fully embracing diversity?
Once you grasp these four core concepts, the myriad details of ADA, and how to comply with it, will fall into place.