ada.jpgThis morning I’m heading to Washington to cover the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The event will be held at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which also rang in its 45th birthday this month.

While the ADA has transformed our nation by opening up doors for many disabled individuals in the workplace, almost everyone I’ve spoken with in these past few weeks leading up to today, even the strongest advocates of the ADA, say we are no where near creating a level playing field for people with disabilities in the workplace.

I put out a request for my friends and connections on Twitter and Facebook to offer there thoughts on the ADA.

Most there there was a long way to go.

Career Coach Meg Montford asked on Twitter whether there was “any way to put more teeth into it? What has ADA done lately to help anyone?”

She also pointed out that the rate of unemployment among this group is high. The latest figures from the Department of Labor show that more than 14 percent of disabled workers are jobless, and those numbers don’t tell the whole story. There are large numbers of people with disabilities that don’t even try to find work because so many employers are unable or unwilling to accommodate their needs.

I also got a note from one of my old friends from Tampa, Stephani Busansky, whose young daughter Sarah is disabled and uses a wheelchair. The two, and her younger daughter, did a PSA for the Act recently, but even she doesn’t think the legislation was enough.

She wrote me the following on Facebook:

Sarah and I did a PSA for the 20th Anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act recently and I have to say though we’ve come a long way in 20 years, there is still so much fighting and advocating for basic rights and accomodations that we need to be mindful of. The ADA is a benchmark, a baseline, a foundation for ensuring the rights of people with disabilities, it is not a GUARANTEE that those rights will not be violated, ignored or passed over by people in your everyday life. Kind of like the 10 Commandments, laws that were made to be broken etc.

I emailed her asking if she thought Sarah would find it easy to pursue her career dreams. I’m waiting to hear back.

My plan is to live-blog from the ADA event if Amtrak and Internet access at the EEOC cooperate. Meanwhile comment here if there are any questions you want to ask about the ADA or if you want to share your thoughts.

Live blogging from the EEOC’s headquarters:
Jacqueline Berrien, Chair of the EEOC, opened the event praises the ADA but also offering a reality check.

“We know the ADA helped to open employment opportunities for many people, but we also know the work is unfinished.”

This statement is as true as it gets. Even during the celebration for this important milestone, the reality that disabled workers still face many barriers to employment even 20 years later.

In some ways, the anniversary falling during a year when the economy is still struggling may be taking some of the air out of what should be more jubilance. “We have a jobs crisis of course and that is obviously well known in the disabilty community were unemployement and underemployment have been an endemic crisis,” said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also a speaker at the event.

Despite the hurdles, few can dispute the changes, both physical and in our nation’s consciousness, that the Act made. Accessibility, education, and the idea that disabled workers could become productive members of society. Today, employers are supposed to make accommodations for disabled workers, if they don’t they’re breaking the law. This came about because of the ADA.

A group of individuals connected with the EEOC were honored for their work in helping the ADA pass, and helping promulgate regulations and guidance for the workplace that followed:

* The late Evan Kemp, former EEOC chairman.
* Christopher Bell, special assistant to Kemp.
* Thomasina Rogers, chair, Occupaional and Health Review Commission, former EEOC legal counsel.
* Peggy Mastroianni, EEOC associate legal counsel.
* Christopher Kuczynski, director of ADA/GINA Policy division, EEOC Office of Legal Counsel.
* Paul Steven Miller, former EEOC commissioner.
* Christine Griffin, deputy director, Office of Personnel Management, former EEOC vice chair and commissioner.

During the event the EEOC offered a glimpse of how things work at the agency when it comes to discrimination cases in the workplace. How they go about fighting ADA violations, and how they decide what fines to bring. There were also personal stories of disabled workers who came face to face with discrimination.

James Hill lost his job in 2006 because of a facial disfigurement that occured when he was burned after going into a home to save children. He was working with Extra Space Management, a storage company for about three months.

He went to work, the district manager was there, and he introduced himself and proceeded to shake hands with the man. He put out his hand, the manager looked at his scarred hand and said, “I’m okay.”

An employee gave Hill a letter the manager wrote about his disfigurement. The manager said, he “noticed he was handicapped, deformed or something,” and “it’s clear he can’t get the job done.”

Hill was then told his hours would be cut. He then went on vacation, and when he returned, everything had changed. “Three days later I was fired. They put I refused to do work, that I sat in my vehicle and slept in the break room. Everything I did I wrote in a book. Everything from day one because they had so many units that were turning over and I didn’t want to go back and do the same unit. They had me wrote up for sleeping when I was on vacation. I think that was okay.

“I got a wonderful [EEOC] attorney, Maria Salacuse. We became friends. It’s a long process. I understand why a lot of people don’t go through with it. With my wife, my daughters, my religion, my god, I got through this. My wife doesn’t know this but I cried at night.”

Hill won his case three years later.

Here’s a link to 20 key cases since the ADA’s passage.

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