Bridging the Gap: Ensuring Equal Opportunities for Americans with Disabilities

Imagine that you are going to a job interview, prepared with a resume and a cover letter in hand. You arrive at the office, confident in your ability to do this job. After the interview, you feel positive about how it went. However, you don’t get the job because you’re blind, and the company doesn’t hire blind employees.

Unfortunately this story is not fictional; it is what happened to Jordan Gallacher, a man with a bachelor’s degree in management and entrepreneurship from Louisiana Tech. Gallacher is blind, but can operate a computer with the assistance of a screen reader. However, his impaired vision kept him from getting a job he was otherwise qualified for.

Disabilities look different depending on the affected person. Some are visible, others are hidden; some are physical, others are mental. Regardless of the disability or the person affected by it, there should be equal employment opportunities for those with disabilities and without.

The Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA) of 1990 “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.” Disabilities are not only physical; the ADA recognizes and protects mental impairments. The ADA’s Frequently Asked Questions page states, “An individual is considered to have a "disability" if s/he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.” Despite the fact that they are covered under the ADA, even those with mental impairments face discrimination. According to a Medscape article, “In the United States, mental disorders are the second most common basis for charges of discrimination and workplace harassment under the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Disability is not monolithic; regardless of the impairment or how the person is affected, he or she is protected under the ADA. However, too often Americans with disabilities do not have access to the same employment opportunities as the non-disabled population.

When looking at the relationship between work and the disabled, it becomes clear that there is an opportunity gap. According to the CNN story featuring Gallalcher, there are approximately 57 million Americans with disabilities, and there has been a significant drop in employment opportunities since the ADA was first implemented. The article states that, “In the early 1990s, about half of disabled Americans were employed, according to Census data. Today that has fallen to just 41%.” While the employment rate for the general population is also declining, “the employment rate of disabled Americans has dropped more than for the non-disabled.”

According to Susan Parish, director of the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, the ADA is “a voluntary compliance law. That is, employers are simply expected to voluntarily comply – they do not have any reporting requirements.” Because of this, there is a heightened need for employers to recognize that their attitudes “play a central role in the success of anti-discrimination legislation, the extent to which disabled people are accepted into occupational life and the extent to which reasonable workplace accommodations are made.”

In a study conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and Syracuse University, researchers sent out fake resumes and cover letters to accounting firms and found that “employers expressed interest in candidates who disclosed a disability about 26 percent less frequently than in candidates who did not.”  

Regardless of the disability or the person affected by it, there should be equal employment opportunities for those with disabilities and without.

As Christians, we are called to promote human flourishing and uphold human dignity. We should work to ensure that persons with disabilities are given equal opportunity to participate in God’s good purpose for work. In his book In Pursuit of Justice, James Skillen writes, “…every talent and calling is to one degree or another a shared, communal activity exercised in response to normative standards that bind creatures to one another and to their creator in a covenant relationship.”

With this in mind, it becomes clear that we must address the current opportunity gap. To do this, a public justice framework suggests that we look at the breadth of institutions involved, particularly the roles and responsibilities of government and of employers. The ADA is a vital piece of legislation. There will be policy disagreements as to ways to strengthen and improve the ADA as it relates to employment, but it’s important that we maintain that government has a role in crafting policies that promote the flourishing of persons with disabilities, as well as a responsibility to prevent discrimination against the disabled.

Several nonprofits have dedicated their work to bridging the gap between persons with disabilities  and employment opportunities.  Grant Collins, the senior vice president of Workforce Development at Fedcap Rehabilitation Services explained to the audience at an American Enterprise Institute event that he assists the disabled population in determining work eligibility, and if eligible, providing assistance through the interview process. When someone comes to Fedcap, they are immediately taken to an independent medical assessment, where their ability to work will be determined. Collins explained that approximately 50 percent of clients find out that they are in fact eligible to work, while 33 percent are temporarily unable, and 17 percent should be preparing themselves to be out of work. If the customer is in the last 17 percent, Collins and his team then begin the process of helping them get set up for disability and social security benefits.

Beyond providing information and practical solutions, nonprofits and churches can also offer volunteer and community engagement opportunities. If unable to participate in the work force, providing a place of work can both promote human flourishing and allow those with disabilities to take part in God’s good purpose for work. For example, Lift Disability Network  provides a space for those with and without disabilities to come together in community and learn from one another. It also offers programs, mentoring, counseling, and other social and spiritual development events. Community Options, Inc. provides housing and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. According to their website, they believe “in the dignity of every person, and in the freedom of all people to experience the highest degree of self-determination.”

As Christians, we understand and affirm the image of God in every person, and the dignity of work that God provides for His creation. Congregations can help restore the dignity of those with disabilities who feel like they don’t have a place in the workforce. Being involved in the community contributes to a sense of belonging, thus upholding the human dignity inherently given to each person. Beyond that, churches can provide counseling and valuable friendships to those with both physical and mental impairments.

Jordan Gallacher’s story should remind us that despite the progress that has been made under the Americans with Disabilities Act, discrimination can still happen within the modern workforce. We must continue to advocate for equal employment opportunities for job seekers with disabilities. The government, employers, nonprofits, and the Church can each contribute uniquely to working towards closing the opportunity gap for those living with disabilities. Let’s be a generation eager to seek the wellbeing and flourishing of all of our neighbors.  

-Alyssa Burlingame is a junior double major in Journalism and Political Science at Azusa Pacific University, and is currently an intern for the Center for Public Justice.