“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.”

— Stevie Wonder

Sue Pressman, ACA’s 69th president

As counselors, we are privileged to work with people from every respective background and with varying abilities. In that light, I want to share that this year we are celebrating both the 75th observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) aptly chose the theme of “Increasing Access and Opportunity” for this commemorative year. The 2020 events initiated by ODEP explore disability inclusion through the lens of workplace policies and practices that support mental health.

What does this all mean? Let’s review the ADA — historic legislation that changed the blueprint of the American workplace. As defined by the ADA, disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

The passage of the ADA in 1990 was a new beginning for the nation, giving hope to so many people living with disability. However, the ADA was not the first piece of legislation that brought positive changes to the employment arena. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment and in the employment practices of federal contractors. Seventeen years later, on July 26, 1990, these “equal access to employment” practices were extended to the private sector of business and industry when the ADA was signed into law.

As we celebrate these momentous events, let’s take a brief look at some of the significant legislative outcomes:

  • Wheelchair access to transportation systems, sidewalk/curb and building ramps, etc.
  • Communication access: American Sign Language interpreters and closed captioning in the workplace, universities, hospitals, theaters, etc.
  • Braille: Use on signage, crosswalks, elevators, for hotel room numbers, in publications, etc.
  • Accessible technology via assistive software, TVs with captioning, accommodations in the classroom and in the workplace related to seating, testing, expanded time requirements, emergency notifications, etc.

Even so, we’ve just scratched the surface. People who have a disability are twice as likely to be unemployed. We need to be mindful that people of color with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the workplace at all levels. Almost 40% of African Americans with disabilities live in poverty, compared with 24% of non-Hispanic Whites, 29% of Latinos/as and 19% of Asian Americans with disabilities. People of color with disabilities face double marginalization, discrimination and stigma that lead to poor socioeconomic outcomes. For more, visit nationaldisabilityinstitute.org.

How can we as counselors increase employment access, opportunity and wellness for those living with disabilities?

  • Learn what barriers our clients with disabilities are facing. In other words, listen.
  • Empower clients to set, achieve and own their goals.
  • Educate ourselves, our clients and employment decision-makers about available resources at the federal, state and local levels.
  • Help clients understand their rights under the law, and help them identify and practice articulating their reasonable accommodation needs.
  • Understand the role that social media can play in connecting those who have a disability with potential employment opportunities.
  • During COVID-19 and times of crisis, help clients develop coping strategies.

As we honor the disability rights movement, it has never been more important to ensure that we all have a voice and that our unique needs and abilities are recognized.    

“We all have ability. The difference is how we use it.” — Stevie Wonder