ADA 30th Anniversary
Tracie DeFreitas, Lead Consultant — ADA Specialist

As one of the most significant civil rights statutes of all time, to me, the ADA embodies hope, opportunity, and…guard rails. The enactment of the employment provisions of the law, Title I of the ADA, offered individuals with disabilities hope that the future of work in America would one day include people of all abilities, skills, and talents. The law created a path, with fewer bumps and more bridges, that leads individuals with disabilities to better opportunities to gain work experience, to share their knowledge and expertise, and to contribute to the workplace in invaluable ways. Still, thirty years after enactment, the ADA is not that smooth winding road we need it to be. But, the guard rails of the law help to keep us on the right path toward equal employment opportunities for all workers.

My expertise at JAN is in ADA Title I compliance. I’ve been in the field of disability employment for about twenty-six years and in that time, I’ve witnessed the evolution of the law with the enactment of the ADA Amendments Act and historic court decisions. I’ve also consulted with tens of thousands of employers and individuals with disabilities on the ADA and reasonable accommodations. In my experience, progress has been made in the endeavor to further disability inclusion and equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities in the workplace – but we know, by the very definition of progress, that we must continue to move toward a more equal destination for all.

The guard rails in the ADA regulations and the guidance provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) keep us moving forward using a framework that enables employers to avoid disability-based workplace discrimination. These rails also guide us through the interactive process to identify reasonable accommodation solutions that enable applicants with disabilities to participate in the hiring process, or an employee to perform the essential functions of a job or to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment. Accommodations are simply a change in the way things are usually done, another way, an alternative method for getting the job done; and they can keep America working.

After 30 years, the ADA still offers hope and a path to opportunity for many individuals with disabilities. The enactment of the ADA mandated employers to change their disability employment practices, but over time, businesses have also changed their perspective on disability and employment. Employers now are more likely to recognize and value the abilities, skills, and talents that individuals with disabilities bring to the workplace, and the benefits of disability inclusion. To me, the ADA leads us here, and it keeps us moving forward, but we’re still working toward reaching that destination of fair and equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

Brittany Lambert, Consultant - Sensory Team

As we enter a new decade, there is cause to reflect on the accomplishments of the disability rights movement. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, created significant change by addressing barriers, both structural and attitudinal. When acknowledging the impact of the ADA, it’s necessary to examine the political effort behind the law. The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush and received bipartisan support. As we celebrate 30 years of the ADA, I find it unequivocally important to remember that disability rights are human rights, and as such, reach far beyond party lines. The ADA represents a shining example of our ability to come together as fellow humans and make change for the collective good. Creating a society in which everyone has an opportunity to thrive by acknowledging and removing barriers is crucial to the well-being of everyone, not just those currently living with a disability. I encourage everyone to remember the ADA and the importance of a unified effort for the betterment of the human condition. 

Linda Batiste, Principal Consultant/Legislative Specialist

When I was in college in the late 1970s my younger sister was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. This was a shock to me; I didn’t even know that young people could get arthritis, let alone did I ever think anything like this could happen to my sister. She was in a lot of pain and the more information we received about what to expect for her future, the more worried we became. Besides the constant pain, one of the things that upset my sister the most was the thought that she might not be able to work. Our family equated work with independence and we assumed that we would all have the opportunity to work if we wanted. But the healthcare providers treating my sister were sending a clear message that work might not be an option for her. She eventually dropped out of high school and tried to start planning for life with a disability.

Fortunately somewhere along the way my family found out about state vocational rehabilitation (VR) and my sister met with a VR counselor who helped her discover that employment could be an option for her after all. The counselor encouraged my sister to get her GED and then enroll in college. She finished college, started working, got a master’s degree, and is still working.

This turn of events made such an impression on me that I decided to become a VR counselor myself. I loved the idea of helping people work if that’s what they wanted to do. I got my master’s degree in late 1991 and started working for JAN in March 1992, just before the employment provisions of the ADA went into effect. When I started learning about the ADA and its underlying purpose, I was amazed. It was exactly in line with everything I experienced with my sister and everything I believed about the importance of people with disabilities having the opportunity to work.

I loved everything about the ADA, and I wanted to learn more. I read everything I could find, including the court cases that were starting to come out. I found it all fascinating. I eventually decided to go to law school so I could really understand what I was reading and what I was hearing from JAN customers.

I’ve spent my career watching the ADA evolve and talking to people about it. And after all these years, I still love the ADA and all that it stands for. 

Matthew McCord, Consultant – Mobility Team

To me the ADA is a step. Societies are constantly evolving and with that evolution the laws for those societies will need to change. Because of this, I see the ADA as a step towards acknowledging a failure to treat people with disabilities fairly. I see it as a beginning in the process of rectifying that injustice across the nation. I am grateful that this law has been in place for 30 years and for the variety of changes it has helped to foster. One such change is in the gaming industry. Video gaming is a pretty big aspect of my personal life and it is so welcoming and encouraging to see effort being put into making games more accessible for people with disabilities. A good example that I recently discovered is the various on-screen visual cues that can be toggled on in some games to help people who are deaf know when there are sounds nearby that they otherwise would not be able to perceive. Such features may never be used or even seen by those without such needs, but for those that have those needs, I am so glad that they exist. Without the ADA, many features like this might not exist today, so I am grateful to see the progress that has been made.

Anne Hirsh, Associate Director

I started as a JAN Consultant in June of 1988 (well, technically as a JAN Graduate Assistant in August 1986, but I left for an internship and another job before returning). So, I was at JAN a few years before the ADA was signed into law. I have seen a lot of change, and some things that have not changed too much, over the years. What the ADA meant to me in 1990 was hope and opportunity. Yes, I was naïve and very young and thought there would be drastic change that we would see right away of people with disabilities being hired and succeeding on the job. The drastic change that I saw was the dramatic increase of phone calls (pre-email and internet chat) we received at JAN. Our old-style phones lit up like Christmas trees from 8 am to 8 pm ET. Employers and individuals alike were hungry to understand what the ADA meant for their places of employment and individual lives.

I am lucky enough to have had a wonderful career here at JAN and to work with a very professional staff dedicated to its mission. Between 1990 and 2020, JAN has grown considerably, partly in response to the hunger of our nation to understand and effectively implement the employment provisions of the ADA. In 2020, (and in part because of the dedicated JAN staff) the ADA still means hope and opportunity to me. Unfortunately, attitudinal barriers still exist about employment of people with disabilities, but I believe we have seen some change in that area, so there continues to be hope. We still have a way to go! Despite that, I feel quite fortunate to have spent my career contributing to the gradual change in hope and opportunity for better employment for people with all types of disabilities that the ADA has made possible. 

James Potts, Consultant — Cognitive/Neurological Team

The ADA is celebrating its 30th anniversary! Because we are an organization that provides information on employment matters under Title I, the ADA holds a special place in the hearts of the JAN staff. It is important to remember the impact this legislation has made on the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families. It is equally important to remember that we have a long way to go. Upon hearing the term “anniversary,” many people think of a joyful event such as a wedding anniversary or perhaps the day they adopted their pet. However, for individuals with disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the anniversary of their trauma may be an incredibly challenging time that requires workplace accommodations.

As a consultant on the Cognitive/Neurological team who leads the veterans' call line, speaking with veterans and their employers about disability-related accommodations is a substantial component of my job. It is important to determine the specific needs of an employee who is experiencing difficulties related to the anniversary of their trauma. A first step is disclosing the disability and making the employer aware that a workplace change or accommodation may be needed. There is a great deal of useful information on disclosure on our website. Once employers are made aware that changes are needed because of disability limitations, the interactive process should begin with identifying effective solutions that meet the employee’s needs without placing undue hardship on the business.

Helpful accommodations will be specific to and dependent upon employee needs, so directly discussing these needs is critical. Taking time off may be one solution if an employee believes they are unable to work during this critical time. If the employee has leave accrued, they may benefit from requesting time off via their workplace’s existing leave policies, without needing to discuss their disability. However, if little or no leave time is available, it is imperative for the employee to link their need for time off with their disability, resulting in their employer’s obligation to provide help.

The goal of accommodations is to keep the individual with the disability working, so trying to identify accommodations to help within the work environment should also be explored. A schedule modification may be useful if symptoms are more prevalent at certain times of the day. Some individuals may not be comfortable working around others during this time so providing a quiet or private area to work peacefully may be a solution. Allowing the employee to listen to music or wear noise cancelling headphones may be an alternative if no private space is available. If the employee can do their work from home, an accommodation of telework might be possible. For individualized accommodation guidance, feel free to call JAN and talk to a consultant or employment specialist! 

Tatum Storey, Consultant — Motor Team

The ADA makes me think of security, not only because of my position as a consultant for JAN, but also because I get to hear about all of the security it provides to countless individuals across the country. The ADA is a federal law that has worked for the past 30 years to provide individuals equal opportunity to be the best employee they can. Working at JAN has allowed me to talk with employers who are eager to assist their employees through ADA guidelines and regulations. I also get the unique and inspiring opportunity to assist employees and individuals in learning how to advocate for themselves so that they can receive accommodations in the workplace. I value federal policy that allows vulnerable populations to receive equality and feel that the ADA does just that. Hearing the many success stories makes me proud to know that the ADA exists and is effective.

Kim Cordingly, Lead Consultant – Self-Employment Team

As a geographer who studies disability, I spend a good deal of time reviewing literature that discusses space and inclusion/exclusion. While we mostly think about geography in terms of physical spaces - inaccessible buildings for example - it also includes the way spaces are socially constructed as welcoming or not. I think each of us has had the experience of being somewhere and not feeling sure we belong there or fit in. It's one thing if it's a bar or shop (although this can be awful too), but when it's a workplace — the source of one's livelihood — this is a very big deal.

The employment provisions of the ADA are at their core about inclusion — helping to understand and remedy the many ways we make spaces, or workplaces, inclusive of people with disabilities. My mother would often ask me to explain what studying geography had to do with disability. Fair question. Geography to her was about maps, rivers, countries, and mountains — Jeopardy questions! My response would always be, discrimination and exclusion are inherently spatial processes. Like many of my colleagues, my interest and understanding of disability began close to home. My mother lived with chronic illnesses most of her life and believed because of this, she would never be able to find a job. Finally in her 40s, she was hired to work at a high school cafeteria. My mother's life was transformed by this experience. She contributed financially to our family. She developed work friendships. She became part of a community. She felt included and valued. While it was very hard work, my mother (now in her 80s) still says she misses her job.

While the 30-year anniversary of the ADA accounts for a robust history for this civil rights law, in truth it is perhaps in early middle age. I know today my mother would have a much better chance of getting a job due to the employment advances of the ADA, but there is a long way to go. At JAN, we hear daily first-hand accounts of both successful employment outcomes and the ongoing barriers. But middle age is not such a bad place to be. This life stage usually represents a time for reflection and that's what anniversaries should help us do. As a geographer, I know that workplaces like rivers are dynamic and evolving — breaking new ground in varying increments. Reflecting on the years ahead, we all have a part to play in constructing the future life course of the ADA and shaping a more inclusive and welcoming society.

Lisa Mathess, Lead Consultant — Motor Team

I do not remember a time before the enactment of the ADA, as I was a toddler in 1990. I can only hope that, prior to the ADA being in effect, employers and public facilities just did the right thing and showed a good faith effort, permitting or even accommodating those with disabilities so they too could enjoy equal benefits and privileges, regardless if there was a legal mandate. However, employment data reflects that before the ADA, those with disabilities were not given the opportunities and employment available to their peers without a disability. This law was essential to ensure these opportunities would be available to those with disabilities. 

The rights that people with disabilities have gained in the past 30 years represent great progress, but there is always room for improvement and growth. As a JAN consultant I am sometimes surprised that some employers aren’t aware of this federal law or they don’t have a basic understanding of their responsibilities. But here at JAN, we hope that employers know about and are willing to contact us so that we can provide information, lay the foundation of ADA principles, and brainstorm workplace accommodation ideas. JAN consultants can educate employers about the ADA and making their workplace compliant and welcoming of any employee, regardless of disability status.  

As a consultant for JAN, I witnessed the impact ADA has on both employers and employees. Most employers contact JAN to seek guidance and education on the principles of ADA and the actions they need to take to become ADA compliant. I am proud to work with employers who yearn to learn more to create a diverse and inclusive workforce environment, and to brainstorm workplace accommodations ideas. The ADA is to thank for this, as it has not only served as legal framework for companies and places of business to follow, but also normalizes the inclusion of folks with disabilities. 

Lore Lee, Employment Specialist

The ADA has been an important part of my life. Every day, I speak to individuals who are worried their mental health or physical health will prompt their employer to terminate them, or discriminate or retaliate against them. The ADA prevents these actions. This is something I've personally benefited from, as I'm a person with a disability. It sometimes affects my interactions, but I feel protected by the ADA. I feel like there's a kind of armor I'm equipped with that can help if things look rough in the workplace.

Sharing this information with others is one of the most rewarding things I've had the chance to do. Hearing an employee go from fear and anxiety to saying, "I feel really prepared to speak with my employer" is a great feeling. It's the feeling that, at least for one person, you've made a difference. The ADA allows that! The ADA allows a person who wants to work, someone who CAN work, to advocate for themselves using law as their basis.

Teresa Goddard, Lead Consultant — Sensory Team

When I was young, my grandmother collected calendars, stationary, and stickers from the organizations to which she and my grandfather regularly donated. Easter Seals was my favorite, because the stickers were so pretty. Also prominent in the stacks of neatly sorted mail were envelopes from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). It didn’t occur to me until I was a teenager that of course this might be connected to my grandfather’s war injury, which we all saw and rarely mentioned. He didn’t like to let anything slow him down. He worked full time as a math and science teacher and kept a sizable garden as well. But in the evening, when he watched the news, he always elevated his leg on a chair that was placed just in front of his armchair. Under the dress pants that he wore daily, his leg was supported by a sturdily built metal brace and wrapped in bandages. These were necessary due to a case of osteomyelitis that never cleared up even after years of treatment in an army hospital. He had a cane, but he never liked to use it. I have only one photograph out of hundreds in which he is using the cane. Some teachers have a reputation for being tough, but fair. He had a reputation for thoroughly preparing his students for college level work and for keeping his students on their toes with the occasional small explosion, carefully planned and executed for comedic value.

My grandfather was retired when the ADA went into effect. I was a young student in 1990. I remember wondering why the ADA was needed. I was in favor of the idea but didn’t fully understand it. My grandfather had worked. My grandmother’s brother was born prematurely and very hard of hearing. He worked and gave me career advice. I never fully appreciated how hard they had to work to have those chances. When our family spoke of equality, we thought of race, religion, and national origin. Of course, all men and women are created equal. Who could think otherwise?

It wasn’t until a medical problem changed my career path causing me to need accommodations at college, that I fully realized the truth. Disability is the minority that anyone can join at any time and without warning. I also quickly learned that the ADA provides a legal support to those who understand and want to do the right thing. The ADA also provides a framework for explaining what needs to be done, so that those who don’t naturally “get it” can understand. It isn’t a perfect law. I expect our society’s ideas on this topic to continue to evolve and change for the betterment of all. However, it is the law that we have. I feel fortunate to witness the effects daily in my work at JAN.

The ADA is about making sure that people have a fair shot. It is a means of ensuring equal chances to strive for success, and opportunities to have experiences that most of us take for granted. I am fortunate to have the chance to work for an organization that promotes the implementation of this most American of ideals. That is what the ADA means to me. 

Benjamin Levi, Employment Specialist

The enactment of the ADA 30 years ago causes bittersweet feelings for me. The ADA provides protection for qualified individuals with limitations to be able to overcome a hurdle that would otherwise prevent them from completing a job. It has given the opportunity for many people to continue thriving in careers they would otherwise have to give up.

With the benefits come challenges that must also be addressed. Education about reasonable accommodations in the workplace does not seem to occur often enough. Individuals, managers, and human resource professionals could enhance their knowledge of the reasonable accommodation process and ADA regulations in the workplace with additional training. From the calls I handle at JAN as an employment specialist, I feel addressing the subject should be common practice in on-boarding and even yearly refresher training as an industry standard.

The ADA is a law that provides great benefit to individuals with all types of disabilities, but could be even more effective with further education of the professionals who specialize in this area for employers.

Melanie Whetzel, Lead Consultant — Cognitive/Neurological Team

Thirty years ago in 1990, I was completing a graduate degree in special education. I had a dream and a plan to become a special educator in the public school system. I reached that goal and taught for almost 15 years in both elementary and secondary settings. What I hadn’t planned for or expected was that the training and experience I gained would help make me an ideal candidate to do a cross-over from the education world into that of employment and accommodations.

Becoming a consultant at JAN seemed like the perfect way to transition from teaching and advocating for students, assuring they had the modifications they needed to be successful in the classroom, to facilitating adults in their employment pursuits and helping them to be successful in the workplace. At JAN, I am able not only to help adults in becoming effective self-advocates in understanding their rights under the ADA and as a result becoming effective employees, but also to assist employers in understanding their rights and responsibilities under the ADA and how to accommodate employees with disabilities so they can continue to work productively.

There are many challenges and rewards that come from consulting with all types of persons with varying disabilities from individuals looking to their first jobs, to seasoned employees needing accommodations for the first time, to employers who need practical guidance, to parents who are still looking out for what is best for their children. I love the opportunity to continue to be an educator in a much larger forum.

Happy 30th ADA!