Disability awareness has been defined as a capability or skill of "being mindful of the disabilities of people and managing to communicate and work with them effectively." This has become an increasingly important topic in both the public and private sectors over the past several decades. Certainly, progress has been made, but what challenges lie ahead?
It is estimated that nearly 61 million people live with a disability in the United States, the equivalent of almost one out of every four adults in our country. Globally, over one billion people are estimated to live with a disability.
Despite the size of this community and the prevalence of people with disabilities in all of our lives, stereotypes about people with disabilities still exist.
One of the most important reasons for promoting a broader understanding of the disability community may be to highlight just how relatively little change is necessary to expand access to many once-restricted areas of life. Right now, the most glaring example of this is society’s rapid reaction to the pandemic. Remote work, always an exciting prospect, never achieved the success that it has today, until a majority of us were forced to work remotely during the pandemic. Technical challenges that seemed complex were overcome in short order when the urgency was present.
It turns out that the willingness to make changes using the technology already available dictates, more than anything else, whether change occurs.
More than thirty years of progress
Certainly there have been encouraging developments in government, education, and the workplace that have helped promote disability awareness and promote a better understanding of the challenges faced by people with disabilities. In the 31 years since the signing of the ADA, and even in the decades leading up to it, our legislative mosaic has been enriched with federal laws that both recognize the rights of people with disabilities and prohibit discrimination. Some of these include:
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Prohibits employers and firms receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of disability;
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 – The ADA broadly guarantees equal opportunity for people with disabilities in employment, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.
- The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 – These amendments helped to restore the original ADA intent and provided critical guidance to help human resource professionals and courts better understand and in turn help define those persons covered by the ADA.
- The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 – The ACA expands the number of health care choices and protections for people with disabilities.
It is difficult to over-emphasize the societal impact that these laws, particularly the ADA, have had on disability awareness over the past three decades. Combined, these laws and their implementing regulations have dramatically changed the lives of people with disabilities and expanded opportunities "by reducing barriers, changing perceptions, and increasing participation in community life," as put by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Expanding disability awareness
There is no sole formula for expanding disability awareness. There are many facts which can be conveyed to the general public, particularly society’s leadership, which will broaden disability awareness and in turn help improve access for people with disabilities. These include:
- Almost one in five of our citizens in this country has some form of disability.
- People with disabilities face significant discrimination in areas which have some of the most profound impact on one’s ability to move ahead in society, like education, healthcare, employment, transportation, housing (PDF), and justice. Lack of access significantly impacts independent living.
- Stereotypes and often subtle prejudices against people with disabilities still impose highly significant barriers. Consistent messaging about these types of stereotypes and misconceptions can over time build disability awareness and improve opportunities for people with disabilities.
- Restricting the ability of one-fifth of our population from more-fully and more-freely contributing to our society is a loss for us all. It is important that the many contributions of people with disabilities are repeatedly highlighted.
Perhaps the most important outcome from the last three decades of increasing disability awareness is an increase in the empathy we feel for one another. As we learn more about the many forms of disability and the presence of people with disabilities in our lives and our own families, it is only natural to expand efforts to relate and share interest in promoting greater access for everyone.
On the flip side, it is critical that we not become complacent with progress. Despite efforts in expanding opportunity for people with disabilities, in 2020 only 17.9% of people with a disabilities were employed, a decrease from 19.3% in 2019. Astonishingly, 61.8% of people without disabilities were employed in 2020. People with disabilities represent the single largest group of unemployed people in the country.
Much work remains to be done.