Disability at Work: Erasing the Stigma

with Andrew Imparato of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 expanded the definition of disability to be more inclusive of those with non-apparent disabilities.

Andrew Imparato, Executive Director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, discusses the importance of empowering Americans with disabilities through self-determination and economic self-sufficiency.

Posted on:

Oct 08, 2018

Hosted by: Ellee Pai Hong
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Hong: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is out with new reporting. In 2017, less than 19% of Americans with disabilities were employed. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Ellee Pai Hong. Joining me to discuss efforts to bring more people with disabilities into the workforce is Andrew Imparato. He is executive director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities. Andrew, thank you so much for coming in.

Imparato: Thanks for having me, Ellee.

Hong: You look at that low percentage of employment, you look at the labor market of today, and the demand for more workers -- why the discrepancy, and why aren´t more employers tapping into that market?

Imparato: Well, you should know that those numbers have been low for a long time, for several decades. We actually think that we´re at a tipping point on this issue and that more and more people with disabilities are gonna come into the labor force over the next five years. There´s a number of different factors. Part of it is the tight labor market, and part of it is that employers are starting to get more aggressive about trying to find partners who can recruit talent with disabilities.

Hong: To give a little history in terms of people with disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to make it illegal for discrimination against folks with disabilities. In 2008, there was an amendment that expanded the definition of people with disabilities.

Imparato: Yeah, so when Congress passed the ADA in 1990, they were using a very broad definition of disability that included people with a history of a disability, people who were regarded or perceived as having a disability, because all of those people had the potential to experience discrimination. The Supreme Court narrowed the definition and a number of decisions interpreting the law, and in 2008, Congress, in a very bipartisan way, like the original ADA, passed the ADA Amendments Act, which I would argue restored protections for people who were supposed to be protected back in 1990, including people like me with bipolar disorder, people with depression, people with epilepsy, diabetes. Anybody who had a condition that they could manage with medication were being told that they weren´t disabled enough to be protected against discrimination, and that was not consistent with what Congress intended in 1990.

Hong: And these non-apparent disabilities, folks with these non-apparent disabilities, like you say, don´t put that out in the open, and that actually hurts them in the long run.

Imparato: Yeah, this is an area where I think there´s a generational shift happening -- my former boss, Senator Harkin, who was one of the Democrats who wrote the ADA, he talked about an ADA generation, a group of young people who have grown up since the passage of the ADA. In our experience, that generation tends to be more open about their disabilities, including non-apparent disabilities, and see it as part of their identity. And when they can bring that with them to work, they can ask for accommodations, they can share insights that they have based on their experience with their disabilities. So, we see that as a very healthy thing. The hope is that over time, more and more people will be out at work with their disabilities.

Hong: And by doing that, you focus more on their abilities rather than the opposite.

Imparato: And you´re educating people. One of my friends, who was a commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said the way you change attitudes towards people with disabilities is by having a positive experience working alongside somebody with a disability. If you have all these folks who are not out with their disabilities, you miss that opportunity to be educated about what people with disabilities are capable of in the workplace.

Hong: But that alone isn´t going to be enough. We need some modern policy updates.

Imparato: Yeah, there are some old policies that were written at a time where we had lower expectations for people with disabilities. For example, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, it´s still okay to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage if their disability affects their productivity in a particular job. We don´t think that´s good policy. We don´t think anybody should be paid less than minimum wage. We´ve got disability benefit programs that punish people when they work too much, or save too much money. We feel like folks with disabilities should be encouraged to work to their full potential and shouldn´t be punished when they move up too high in their career.

Hong: You know, on the flip side, opponents would say, "But that was an incentive for employers to hire people with disabilities."

Imparato: You´re talking about the sub-minimum wage provision?

Hong: Yes.

Imparato: Yeah, but again, that was written at a time where workplaces looked very different than they do today. It wasn´t uncommon at one point in our history for people to do productivity tests, to have to meet a productivity standard for a job. It´s very unusual for jobs to have those kinds of standards now. So, we think it reflects old thinking about what the nature of work is, what the nature of productivity is. We have a lot of technology tools that help all of us be more productive. So, when you´re analyzing how productive somebody is, you also have to ask the question, "Are they getting the accommodations that they need to be as productive as possible?"

Hong: And you touched on this, it´s not like the olden days where folks were standing on a production line, and you could see how many products they were producing. It´s on a much wider scale than that.

Imparato: And there are also benefits to the employer for just having a diverse workforce that includes people with disabilities. One of the companies that´s been good on this is Walgreens. When I asked their leadership, "What is the strongest business case for hiring people with disabilities," they said, "Employee engagement." I said, "What do you mean by that?" And they said, "Our employees are more likely to shop at Walgreens because we hire people with disabilities. They feel better about us as an employer."

Hong: Inclusion is always a good thing. Andrew, thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Imparato: Thank you. And thank you for joining us as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit ComcastNewsmakers.com. I´m Ellee Pai Hong.

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