Op-Ed: Another Step Toward Removing the Barriers
Nearly sixteen years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted and signed into public law. The legislation sought to remove barriers in employment, education, housing and other public services, as well as to remove negative perceptions and bias against persons with disabilities. While the passage of the ADA was momentous, much still remains to be done to ensure that Americans with disabilities – including lawyers with disabilities – are treated as valued members of society and allowed the rights afforded to other citizens.
As a recent law student who has a disability – I am blind – my constitutional law book contained no copy of the U.S. Constitution. An electronic book that I received from the publisher consisted of roughly 500 different files — each page was a different file — that were inadequately named; I could not tell which file was page one and which file was page 500. In seeking employment, medical services and other public services, I often have to state my Social Security number and other very personal information out loud to human resources’ or other personnel – something that would surely outrage a person without a disability as an infringement of their privacy.
In addition, the paper currency used by Americans is not accessible to many blind or visually impaired citizens. And many citizens are not able to vote independently because booths may not be accessible for persons who use wheelchairs; often electronic voting machines are not equipped with voice and paper ballots may not be available in Braille.
Despite the ADA, the civil rights struggle of persons with disabilities remains largely unheard.
The American Bar Association is sponsoring – along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – a first-of-its kind National Conference on the Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities on May 22 and 23. The conference is aimed at broadening the opportunities available for lawyers with disabilities in all legal employment sectors. The program will include a best practices guide to hiring lawyers with disabilities, as well as the release of a fact sheet from the EEOC on “reasonable accommodation.”
The ADA stipulates that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” in hiring people with disabilities. But the word “accommodation” often connotes something that is a challenge or requires an effort by the person or entity that must abide by it. I don’t believe people are being mean-spirited. I believe they are wary of the unknown, and what is and what is not required. For example, a reasonable accommodation may simply involve modifications to the job application process, or modifications that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits of employment, such as ensuring that an office lunch is held at an accessible restaurant.
If there were a greater understanding of what reasonable accommodation meant, the dismal reality of some 30 – 40 percent of Americans with disabilities being unemployed would surely decrease. But information relating to disability can be spotty, as census bureau forms are not accessible to some persons with disabilities.
The conference will begin the necessary education process that will allow lawyers with disabilities to become not only employed, but to find employment where their talents are fully utilized. I look forward to the conference as a way to begin planting the seed for all Americans to want lawyers with disabilities to have fulfilling careers and lead satisfying lives.
But in order for this to happen, a strong commitment is required from both the private and public sectors to ensure that persons with disabilities are allowed the rights of other citizens. This conference is a step in that direction.