22 Years Later, Time to Get Serious About the Americans with Disabilities Act

Why is the workplace still inaccessible to so many people with disabilities 22 years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act?

This bipartisan legislation held so much promise. Its authors and those of us in the field had visions of doors to employment flying open for individuals with disabilities. Unfortunately, that promise has only been partially realized. Employment for people with disabilities is lower today than it was before the passage of the ADA. As of June 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 32 percent of working age people with disabilities were in the labor force, and only about 27.6 percent were actually working.

Despite the statistics, I am hopeful that we are finally ready to get serious about the power of people with disabilities to enrich the workplace. I fully believe that every individual, regardless of ability, is capable of working. Someone just needs to provide that chance. And in an economic climate with the national unemployment rate hovering over 8 percent, that's all anyone who is out of work is seeking.

Clearly, we need to encourage society to see beyond disability and recognize that every individual has unique talents and abilities. With 35 years experience in working with individuals of all ages with disabilities, I've seen first-hand what a job means to someone like Robert - who is proud to have taken just one sick day in nearly 18 years at the Hilton Westchester hotel. No one should be labeled based on his or her deficit. Many companies recognize this and are the true pioneers in embracing diversity in the workplace. Here are their top reasons for hiring individuals with disabilities:

1. Diversity Brings and Helps Drive Superior Business Outcomes

"There's a large body of research (Scott Page at University of Michigan in his book, The Diversity Advantage) showing that diversity spurs innovation and high performance," said Lori Golden, AccessAbilities Leader, with Ernst & Young LLP. "Physical and cognitive abilities are just another kind of difference that enriches our culture and ability to maximize value for our clients. Many have noted that the life experiences of people with disabilities often lead to attributes especially important in today's fast moving, global business environment, such as adaptability, creative problem solving and an ability to connect with people from different backgrounds and perspectives."

2. They Have the Skills and the Drive to Do the Job

"You don't hire people because they have a disability. You hire people because they bring certain skills to the table," said Tad Asbury, Executive Director of the Marriott Foundation's Bridges From School to Work, which has helped 18,000 young people with disabilities enter the workforce over 20 years. "There are young people with a genuine desire to go to work and be contributing members of society."

3. It's Simply Good Business

"We consider diversity strategic to our organization," said Jim Sinocchi, IBM's Director of Workforce Communications. "We don't hire people who are disabled just because it's a nice thing to do. We do it because it's the right thing to do from a business standpoint."

IBM's long-standing commitment to people with disabilities began in 1914 when IBM hired its first disabled employee, 76 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Key to inclusion of persons with disabilities in the workforce are recruiting and hiring but perhaps more importantly, the development of management practices that facilitate the accommodation and success of persons with disabilities.

Target Corp. shares a similar philosophy. "Recruiting a diverse team is critical to achieving our goal, to be the best," the company says on its website. "We see diversity as any trait that makes someone unique and does not interfere with effective job performance."

4. It's Critical to a Company's Success

"It's a business imperative," said Shaun Kelly, Vice Chair - Operations, and National Co-Chair ofKPMG's Abilities in Motion network. "Many leading companies, such as KPMG, realize that meeting the needs of this most important segmentof our community through workforce, workplace, and marketplace initiatives, can no longer be considered just a strategic advantage. It is critical to a company's success."

KPMG has conducted facilities audits in its offices across the U.S. to pro-actively identify and address aspects of its workplace that may pose a challenge to people with disabilities. The company also established its disabilities network as an extension of its diversity strategy. Now known as Abilities in Motion (AIM), the network supports both partners and employees with disabilities as well as parents, relatives, and caregivers of those with special needs.

5. Talent Comes in All Kinds of Packages.

"We need to recognize that as a society, we must take talent where it comes from and work to enable it," Ernst & Young's Golden adds. "This means that we value the contributions of people from all backgrounds and perspectives -- including people with a range of abilities and disabilities."

PepsiCo, which also has been recognized for its commitment to diversity, states on its website: "We have a core belief that making the most of diverse strengths and talents helps make our company successful. We take great care to weave diversity and inclusion into the very fabric of our culture to improve as a global, multicultural and multigenerational company capable of serving the world's communities effectively."

6. It Enriches the Culture

"At Procter & Gamble, we very much see diversity as part of our DNA and all we do," said William Gipson, Chief Diversity Officer. "We have a global diversity strategy and inclusion is at the core of that strategy. By fostering a culture of inclusion, we can ensure that every employee feels valued, included and can perform at their peak every day."

Last August, P&G opened a new Flexicenter in Auburn, Maine, which is part of the Tambrands plant, for packaging and assembly. "This pilot builds on the Walgreens model for hiring people with disabilities and our Flexicenter enables the opportunity to employ 60 employees with disabilities for 24/7 operations," Gipson said. "What's really cool about this business model is that employees with disabilities have the same work expectations, without exception, working alongside employees without any disability. "

7. Bringing Enthusiasm and Passion to the Team

"Partnering with organizations supporting people with disabilities has been a great benefit to us in building the ShopRite team," said Tom Urtz, Vice President of Human Resources and Community Affairs for ShopRite Supermarkets, Inc. "Associates that come to us from these agencies are among the most enthusiastic and passionate that I have seen in my 24 years in the retail industry. They add to the diversity of the ShopRite family, bringing a new perspective and new ideas to the table. They just bring that extra something to our team and their contributions are invaluable to our success as a company."

8. Enhancing the Customer Experience

"It takes a lot of different people with different talents and skills to bring great food and heartfelt hospitality to all of our locations," said Cindy Noble, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, which for 13 years has hired individuals with disabilities to maintain the food village at the US Open Tennis Championship in New York City. "Fostering a diverse team continues to help us grow as a Company and create the best experience possible for each and every guest."

I'd like to think we won't have to wait another 22 years for the barriers to employment to come down. I'd like to think that the vision of these and other forward-thinking corporations can pave the way for a more diverse workplace.

I'm not looking at changing the world overnight. But I am interested in changing the world.