There's an ignoble side to the Americans with Disabilities Act that I'd really like to see change in Corporate America and beyond.
The ADA, the landmark law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace, can work for and against workers. Let me give you two examples.
First, I am someone with a disability. Being paralyzed from the shoulders down requires my use of a large sip-and-puff-powered wheelchair, which makes my situation fairly explicit. Like many with my condition, I benefited from the ADA and hold a college degree and a Master's degree. I have worked as a health policy analyst for more than 15 years.
I've never seen my disability as anything other than a value-added credential. I may do some things differently than others, but it has never impacted my ability to do my job. In some ways, my disability has challenged me to work harder than my peers to achieve my goals.
The ADA clearly states that individuals, disability or not, must be able to fulfill the core functions of the job for which they are applying. The law is crystal clear: Either you have the requisite skills to perform the essential functions or you do not. There's no gray area; no special treatment is required.
In Corporate America in particular, the courts have sided on behalf of employers on this issue. Yet I still hear about businesses being afraid to hire workers with disabilities out of fear of ADA lawsuits if the worker is fired or let go. Even worse, I've seen cases of paternalism in the workplace -- special protections given to workers -- because of the ADA.
Which brings me to my second example. I worked with a man named Russell many years ago. Like me, Russell has a significant disability. He had been working at the same place for more than 20 years when I met him.
As I began to build a relationship with Russell, I was amazed at his background and tenure. He held two Master's degrees and had worked his way across numerous programs. When I finally had the chance to work on a joint project with Russell, I thought I was getting a great opportunity to glean his wisdom and expertise. Unfortunately this was not my experience.
I was shocked to find that Russell's skills were rusty, even nonexistent. He was assigned menial tasks and struggled with basic analytical tasks. I was baffled: How could someone with a strong educational background and long work history have so few job skills?
Then I realized that Russell has never had anyone manage or mentor him. He never had anyone critique his work, give him feedback on what he was doing wrong, or facilitate a plan to improve his performance. Instead, Russell's boss had been moving him along for the last 20 years allowing him to assume his work was good, if not great.
This side of the ADA really worries me. A company might hire a person with a disability but fail to nurture him or her. As I told the Washington Post's Wonkblog in a recent interview, paternalism in the workplace has the potential to diminish people's skills. Workers don't get good management saying,"You're putting out a terrible product, and we need a plan of correction." Thus they don't improve.
Many people with disabilities, including myself, have a fear that we might be treated differently than non-disabled people regarding work expectations. I often worry that somehow, someone's not going to tell me, "You're not doing good work," either to protect my feelings, keep their diversity hiring goals intact or assuage lawsuit fears.
Today I live every workday working hard, preferring feedback on what I can do better over what I've done well. It's also why I'm involved in the Think Beyond the Label campaign to raise awareness for businesses to hire more people with disabilities. I even appeared in its national TV advertisements in 2010, where I humorously interacted with a HR person looking to hire someone like me.
In short, no person should be hired if they can't perform the essential function of the job. But if they can, they should seek out and receive the best management and direction they can get. They should have a chance to build their job skills and be promoted, which will open new opportunities for a better and more independent future.
The ADA is not just about hiring -- though that's a big part. The ADA is about consistently nurturing and developing a worker's abilities and holding their skills and talents to the standards of everyone else, while providing needed accommodations where feasible for the employer.
My advice to HR personnel is this: Don't be nervous about hiring someone with disability. Lawsuits are few and far in between, and the ADA is on your side. Hold us to your highest standards and we'll be aim to be your best worker.
The Boston Celtic's legend Bill Russell hit the nail on the head when he remarked, "You know you've reached equality when you get fired for the same reasons as everyone else." This is well put and succinctly captures the essence -- and the noble side -- of what the ADA stands for.