The following content is created in partnership with the Melwood organization. It does not reflect the work or opinions of NBC Washington’s editorial staff. Click here to learn more about Melwood.
It’s been 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) went into effect and began to change the ways our nation perceives equal access and opportunity. Since its passing, we have indeed made progress towards the goals of the ADA— “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency” for individuals of differing abilities.
In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in the Olmstead v. L.C. decision that, under Title II of the ADA, public entities must avoid unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities and make services available in the most integrated setting possible, which includes employment opportunities. Congress amended the ADA in 2008 with widespread bi-partisan support to clarify the ADA definition of “disability” to include a broader scope of coverage for people with disabilities against discrimination under federal law.
The U.S. AbilityOne Program, which implements the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) Act, is the largest source of employment opportunities for those who are either blind or have significant disabilities, employing over 45,000 people through more than 500 nonprofit agencies nationwide, including Melwood.
Larysa Kautz, Interim President and CEO of Melwood, one of the largest nonprofits participating in the AbilityOne Program, hopes to breathe new life into the ADA by launching ADA 2.0 – a bolder vision for inclusive employment in the public and private sectors, including through the Ability One Program. (Melwood, sponsor of this article, provides jobs and training for a variety of career fields to thousands of people of differing abilities in the Washington, D.C. area.)
Melwood specializes in working with people with neurological or developmental disabilities, a group that has not been as well served by current versions of the ADA. Today’s technology offers a chance to change that by making more opportunities accessible than ever before.
“There are so many neurodivergent people with incredible abilities who want to be included—who want to work, want to fit in, want to make a life for themselves,” Kautz says. “But society sees their disability as a barrier, instead of a strength. The passage of the ADA was a huge win in the fight against discrimination and to open access; we now have to fight for full inclusion and greater opportunities to realize the full potential of the ADA.”
As such, Kautz has seven recommendations for an ADA 2.0:
- Safeguard against efforts to weaken the ADA and push for more aggressive enforcement of the ADA.
- Ensure that people of differing abilities who want to work have the opportunity to work and receive equal wages. Currently, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay less than minimum wage to workers with disabilities.
- Individuals of differing abilities must have a seat at the table. As advocates have said, “Nothing about us without us.” There has to be a greater neurodiversity in federal, state and local elected and appointed offices, and in the boardrooms and executive teams of companies. If one in four adults has a disability, then laws, public policy, and corporate decisions should have the input of the fastest growing marginalized group in society.
- Prioritize employing people of differing abilities in the public and private sectors. In 2019, fewer than one in five individuals of differing abilities were employed and, in every age group, were less likely to be employed than other workers. Employing and supporting businesses owned by people of differing abilities must become a national priority, both in the public and private sectors.
- The public and private sectors must invest in accommodations, workplace support services, and assistive technologies for people of differing abilities. Hiring is the first step, supporting retention and advancement are equally important for workplace success.
- Technology will play a major role in future employment opportunities for people of differing abilities both in terms of accessibility and opportunity. As automation replaces many traditional jobs, we must also ensure we’re training for alternative jobs that will replace those lost opportunities.
- Public and private sectors must invest in skilled labor training and apprenticeship programs for all ages but especially for youth transitioning out of high school, so they’re prepared for high-demand, skilled, labor positions.
Wondering what workers of differing abilities can do for your company? Click here to visit the Melwood site to learn more.