Disability Advocates Still Fight for Progress

2020 marks the anniversary of important milestones for people with disabilities.

July 26 saw the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, while October was the 75th anniversary of the National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). At the end of October, the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted two discussion panels to build awareness of opportunities for and the accomplishments of people with disabilities in the workplace, as well as how Pitt is addressing the challenges and successes that individuals with disabilities face every day.

"As a community, we must continue to promote and prioritize accessibility for people with disabilities. And we must continue working together to create an academic environment that is not just world-class, but is also welcoming and inclusive to all people,” said Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in a video introduction for one of the panels.

The panels, held Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 28 and 29 respectively, were “NDEAM at 75: Employment of People with Disabilities—Progress to Date and Future Directions” and “Pitt Perspectives on Employment for Individuals with Disabilities: The Importance of Employer Practices and Workplace Climate.” Both panels addressed the challenges and success people with disabilities face every day in the workplace.

While panelists agreed much progress has been made since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) 30 years ago, more work needs to be done. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year that just 19.3% of persons with a disability were employed. It also reported that the jobless rate for people with disabilities continued to be about twice as high as the rate for those without a disability.

“Employment is key to building a life for most people. It provides income, a sense of identity and contributes to society as whole. People with disabilities have a lot to offer, and NDEAM helps to celebrate the contributions of people with disabilities to the workplace and remind everyone of the need to increase opportunities for people with disabilities,” said Rory Cooper, distinguished professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories. “The ‘NDEAM at 75’ panel reflects the many ways that people with disabilities contribute to society. Pitt is an employer and should also model positive approaches for other employers with regards to people with disabilities.”

Cooper moderated the “NDEAM at 75” panel. The NDEAM and the ADA are dear to him. Prior to the ADA’s passing in 1990, Cooper, who uses a wheelchair, was unable to rent a car, stay in accessible hotel rooms or have access to many buildings or restaurants. Cooper’s research efforts today are geared toward improving mobility for people with disabilities, including enhancements to wheelchairs and prosthetics.

Panelists both days addressed topics such as accommodating workers on the autism spectrum, embracing ever-evolving laws regarding health care and how they affect workers with disabilities, educating parents and children with disabilities for future success, self-employment and workplace inclusion.

They said employers should make time to understand workers’ needs when it comes to disabilities. They also said people should change their social perceptions about what workers with disabilities can accomplish.

“We need to change the culture,” said Chaz Kellem, director of PittServes. “Every member of the disability community is different, but there needs to be more awareness of our community and what we can do. We’re a valuable asset to any organization.”

Education and transparency were also brought up during the panels as powerful tools toward inclusion and equality for the disability community.

“Open conversations about these issues that people with disabilities face are needed, especially around being fully integrated and invited into the workplace environment,” said Libby Powers, a research assistant at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories. “Individuals with disabilities do in fact want to work, want to be a part of the community in the workplace, and want to be recognized as valuable, contributing members of the team.”

Mark Schmeler, associate professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, is currently working on research that will investigate a new health coverage policy for custom manual and power wheelchairs for people with disabilities to improve their ability to live and participate in their communities.

Schmeler said during the “Pitt Perspectives” panel that digital inclusion is a must for people with disabilities, especially as many people work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There have been great opportunities to use electronic strategies, but unfortunately a lot of those are not fully thought through, and the software isn’t completely accessible for screen readers and voice recognition,” Schmeler said. “We’ve come a long way, but I often run into software developers who have never even heard of Section 508 (of the Rehabilitation Act) or screen readers. Similar to how architects had to be retrained for building accessibility after the ADA was passed, maybe we need to focus on retraining for these areas too.”

For more information on Pitt’s resources for individuals with disabilities, visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s Disability Resources and Services webpage