Employment of Persons with Disabilities: Past, Present and Future

In the past forty years, law, policy, and public attitudes affecting persons with disabilities have changed dramatically. Historically, disability was seen as a defect that prevented someone from participating in “normal” life activities.

By Peter Blanck, PhD, JD

In the past forty years, law, policy, and public attitudes affecting persons with disabilities have changed dramatically. Historically, disability was seen as a defect that prevented someone from participating in “normal” life activities. It could be a physical or mental condition that was life-long or resulted from an accident or illness. Attitudes ranged from the desire to protect and often seclude the person, to concern that the person’s abilities were diminished and could not be improved or mitigated through an accommodation by society.

Perhaps the earliest comprehensive definition of disability was derived for the large numbers of injured soldiers returning from the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). According to the Civil War Pension laws, disabled Union Army (northern) veterans were awarded pensions based on their “incapacity to perform manual labor.” This medical model defined disability as an infirmity that precluded equal participation in society and the ability to earn an independent living. As today, in the late 1800s, not all disabilities were regarded equally. Certain stigmatized disorders such as mental disorders and infectious diseases often were deemed “unworthy” of public assistance, and persons with these disabilities faced strong attitudinal discrimination.

One hundred years after the Civil War, in the 1960s, the Social Security entitlement program was broadened to provide support for people living in poverty and those with disabilities. But in many ways these medicalized programs continued the approach toward the disabled of seeking their adjustment to a world designed for those living without disabilities. It also countenanced segregating people with disabilities from mainstream society in employment, housing and education.

In the 1970s, people with disabilities first began to view themselves as a minority group with civil rights to be protected similar to other minority groups fighting for equality. This new rights-based approach fostered the passage of laws guaranteeing accessibility to employment, voting, air travel, and independence in education and housing, culminating in 1990 with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Widespread in its influence, the ADA has implications for schools, businesses, communities, and public facilities; all branches of government; and, health and social services. The ADA disability rights model also is uniting countries around the world in the pursuit of policies to improve the lives of persons with disabilities. The European Union, for example, enacted Council Directive 2000/78/EC in 2000 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, in employment, among other areas. In 2006 and 2007, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted, which is an international treaty on the human rights of persons with disabilities around the world.

Research by psychologists in fields such as law, rehabilitation, education, social and developmental, and industrial-organizational areas is building a body of study on stigma and discrimination faced by people with disabilities in the workplace and elsewhere. Research also is focused on the abilities of people with disabilities when effectively accommodated by society, and the impact of the ADA and other policies on improving the lives of people with disabilities. Though the overall employment rate of Americans with disabilities is still low in both the private and public sectors, the ADA and other laws like the Rehabilitation Act are helping to reduce discrimination and encourage employers to make workplace accommodations, thereby stimulating the hiring and career advancement of people with disabilities. The National Organization on Disability/Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities has shown the percentage of people with disabilities who report discrimination in the workplace has declined in recent years. Moreover, the economic benefits to companies in employing and accommodating workers with disabilities have been documented.

In the study of the employment of persons with disabilities, interview, survey, and observational research has occurred in field settings, and experimental research is increasing in academic settings. It is important for researchers to cumulate and synthesize research in this area, in part to provide evidence-based support for new and innovative public policy and practice. This building of knowledge will help assess the impact of law and policy on the daily lives of people with disabilities. It also will help translate the impact of disability research on systems change and best practice approaches, as well as aid policymakers and courts to clarify disability law and policy. This new knowledge will further the ADA’s mandate for self-determination, equal opportunity, and societal inclusiveness.

One hundred years ago and today, the quest for disability rights continues to have as much to do with battling attitudinal prejudice as it does with overcoming physical barriers to workplaces, schools, and communities. But unlike any generation before, today’s children with disabilities will never know a world without laws like the ADA or the UN Convention, with their vision for equality and full participation. How we continue to address these issues will shape their lives and those of generations to come.