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opinion | Tom Harkin and Jay Ruderman

Twenty-five years since the ADA, focus must be on employment

A flag hung from a wheelchair during celebrations earlier this year for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in Boston.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file 2015

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed 25 years ago, unleashed both significant policy and culture change in American society. Prior to this historic legislation, people with disabilities were often excluded from the economy, isolated from mainstream society, and forced to live lives of dependence. They were pitied, not respected.

Undeniably, we’ve made great strides in the past quarter-century on both the policy and social fronts. America is a far more inclusive society. More people are living independent and integrated lives.

But we need to face the fact that much work remains to be done, particularly in providing jobs for and empowering people with disabilities in the workplace. Participation in the workforce by people with disabilities is only one-third that of people without disabilities. On the jobs front, we have a ways to go.


The good news is that integrating people with disabilities into the workplace is not only good for people with disabilities, it’s good for the companies that hire them and good for the economy. Just as we all pay the price of underutilizing people with disabilities in the workplace, we all benefit by bringing them in, providing meaningful work, and extending them, like all employees, the possibility of realizing their highest callings.

This isn’t just about being fair or humane. Here’s how more inclusive employment practices benefit us all:

First, the companies that hire people with disabilities get highly dedicated and productive workers. The American Society of Safety Engineers found that employees with disabilities had roughly half the turnover rate of the average employee. In addition, medical costs for employees with disabilities were 67 percent lower and time-off expenses 73 percent lower. A DuPont study of 811 employees showed that people with disabilities rated 90 percent better in job performance.

Second, companies that hire and develop people with disabilities foster better work cultures that likely enhance productivity for all employees. More than half of the employees in Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends survey said their companies are doing little if anything to improve employee engagement – which ranked as the number-one challenge facing companies.


Programs to recruit and integrate employees with disabilities impact the work culture by giving those involved a tremendous sense of satisfaction. We’ve seen over and over again the contagious sense of accomplishment from employees who have been involved in successful recruitment and retention efforts for people with disabilities.

When a company institutes such a program, it demonstrates its inclusive values to its employees, giving the broader workforce a sense that they are working for a values-driven organization. And when companies see this success, they expand their understanding of the varied and unique contributions each employee can make, generating a more diverse and positive culture overall.

Third, when more people work and live financially independent lives, they bring value to the economy. Employing people with disabilities — nearly 20 percent of our population — offers the possibility of economic growth and renewal.

For the next 25 years of the ADA to improve employment and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities we will need a commitment on the part of employers, elected officials, and the broader public much like the efforts that were made to pass and implement the ADA. We need the data to show that employment of people with disabilities is good for business and society. We need to highlight the employment best practices. We need to shine a light on employer success stories. And we need to not give up until the workforce participation rate for people with disabilities is the same as for those without disabilities


Let’s get started. The next 25 years is now.

Tom Harkin, a former US senator from Iowa, introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Senate. Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a leading disability inclusion organization based in Boston. The Foundation is honoring Senator Harkin for his lifetime of dedication to disability inclusion at the inaugural Ruderman Inclusion Summit, November 1-2 in Boston.