Twenty-Five Years After the ADA: Celebrating its Virtues and Understanding its Failures

The Americans with Disabilities Act had important impacts on improving accessibility and increasing public awareness about the struggles of people with disabilities. The ADA made the US a world leader – its language the basis for national policies in the US and the UK, as well as the UN Convention on Disability Rights.

But when it comes to employment and earnings among people with disabilities, the US looks more like a policy laggard rather than policy leader. In fact, recent employment rates have actually been lower than the pre-ADA era. In 2012, the employment rate among Americans with disabilities was about 18%. To put this in perspective, the employment rate among Canadians with disabilities is about 49%, 47% in the UK, and 53% in Australia.

Disability and the Labor Market

When it comes to employment, people with disabilities in the US still lag considerably behind women, African Americans and Hispanics. Workers with disabilities earn significantly less than similar workers without disabilities. Women, blacks, and Hispanics with disabilities often face additional obstacles due to the intersection of multiple disadvantaged statuses – a so-called “double handicap.”

There is also considerable variation among people with disabilities. Even after accounting for differences in education and human capital, employment rates are highest for people with sensory difficulties but lowest for those indicating self-care or independent living difficulties. People with multiple disabilities, as well as those with cognitive disabilities are more likely to experience occupational segregation and isolation. Indeed, people with disabilities, particularly those with cognitive or multiple disabilities, are employed in lower paying occupations. For example, in recent work, sociologist Michelle Maroto and I found that 9.5 percent of people with cognitive disabilities were employed in food preparation and service occupations. The annual average earnings for this occupation in 2011 was $18,168, less than half the average across occupations and the lowest of all major occupations

A Failure of Policy

The ADA has neither conceptually nor practically dealt with specific individual and structural-level considerations regarding the integration and performance of individuals with disabilities in the labor market. The ADA that was signed into law 25 years ago represents a weaker version than that which was proposed in 1988, in order to convince the Republican administration to pursue the law. Although proponents found success in framing the law as another attempt to get the “disabled off welfare,” employers and the business community lobbied against the law. They saw the ADA as symbolic of increased labor market regulation impeding their autonomy in hiring. Rather than analogizing the efforts of Title I of the ADA to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers saw “reasonable accommodation” as a form of redistribution of their resources in order to make “special efforts” for a specific group.

The US Supreme Court tended to agree with employers. Maroto and I found that between 1990 and 2010, the Supreme Court overturned numerous lower court decisions that ruled in favor of the disabled plaintiff. The courts took a more prominent role in enforcing and interpreting disability rights legislation following Congress’ retreat in the late-1970s. Despite Congress’ subsequent attempts at addressing these conservative court interpretations – first with the ADA in 1990 and again with the ADA Restoration Act in 2008 – we have seen no improvement in employment and earnings in the last seven years.

Moving Forward

There is an important empirical distinction between policy having an unintended harm and having no influence on already declining employment rates. While studies seeking to uncover the role of the ADA in shaping economic outcomes are inconclusive, there is mounting evidence that lax enforcement and “judicial resistance” has likely undermined the ability of the ADA to have a positive effect on the economic wellbeing of the disabled.

There are several issues to consider moving forward. First, if policies are meant to change negative attitudes and stereotypes, we must ask whether the ADA has done its job in shaping employer attitudes. Evidence suggests that employers are less likely to have concerns if they have prior experience with employees with disabilities. Policies can have an important role in increasing employment and reducing occupational segregation and isolation which in turn, can positively shape employer experiences and help dispel myths about disabled workers.

Second, more needs to be done to link efforts in undermining employment discrimination and the system of social assistance and benefits.  The relationship between benefits and employment is rather complex and the evidence inconclusive. Maroto and I found that although the individual receipt of government assistance was associated with decreased employment and earnings, certain benefits often increased average earnings at the US state level.  It is therefore not clear the extent to which benefits deter people to look for jobs on the one hand, or whether they help cushion people who are often prevented from earning enough on the other. Maroto and I review inconsistent findings regarding benefits and employment in a forthcoming article in Disability Studies Quarterly.

Third, as I mentioned in my recent op-ed in USA Today, policies like the ADA need to do more to address education and training as well as the structure of the labor market which perpetuates inequalities. In addition to being clustered in lower-paying entry positions regardless of industry, people with disabilities are generally underrepresented in the fastest growing sectors and overrepresented in declining industries. Increasing access to, and quality of, educational and training resources can help people with disabilities break out of these lower paying jobs and increase access to faster growing industries.


Maroto, Michelle and David Pettinicchio. 2015. “Twenty-Five Years After the ADA: Situating Disability in America’s System of Stratification. Disability Studies Quarterly, special issue, forthcoming.

Maroto, Michelle and David Pettinicchio. 2014. “Disability, structural inequality, and work: The influence of occupational segregation on earnings for people with different disabilities,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 38:76-92.

Maroto, Michelle and David Pettinicchio. 2014. “The Limitations of Disability Antidiscrimination Legislation: Policymaking and the Economic Well-being of People with Disabilities.” Law and Policy 36(4):370-407.

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