ODEP at 20: Driving Change Through Workplace Accommodation Assistance

An employee with a disability working at a desk.

This year marks 20 years since the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) opened its doors, and this month marks 31 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These two anniversaries represent important milestones along America’s journey to a more equitable and inclusive society for people with disabilities. To those of us at the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), they also represent the intersection of our origins and ongoing work.

JAN is the leading source of free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations for people with disabilities. ODEP funds us, but our history predates both the agency and the ADA. We started out in 1983 as part of West Virginia University’s Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (now the Center for Disability Inclusion). At the time, we only had four employees, two of whom provided live assistance to employers over two phone lines.

The idea for this type of service originated with the then President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Although the ADA was not yet in place, the concept of reasonable accommodations was established in earlier, less wide-reaching legislation (e.g., the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). The Committee realized the importance of helping employers understand what reasonable accommodations were and options for implementing them.

Today, accommodations are at the heart of the ADA’s employment provisions—and when those went into effect, JAN was ready to help employers understand their responsibilities. We were also there to assist individuals with disabilities, their family members and service providers. Our inquiry volume more than doubled the first few years after the ADA’s implementation and then again by the late 90s.

When ODEP was established in 2001, the talented people at the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities became a core part of the new agency, bringing their expertise on employer education and outreach with them. We’ve been pleased to be part of the ODEP family ever since.

We’ve come a long way since our start. Today, JAN averages more than 50,000 inquiries annually, not counting visitors to our website that offers resources on accommodations for a full range of disabilities or participants in our many trainings. We also continue to be responsive to new issues as they arise—from accessible technology to mental health to COVID-19.

Although workplace issues and our methods for addressing them have changed over the years, our core mission remains the same. I speak on behalf of all JAN’s staff (which now includes 20  professionals with accommodation expertise) when I say that we’re proud to play an important role in ODEP’s 20 years of work to increase equity for people with disabilities in employment—and look forward to doing so for many more to come.

D.J. Hendricks, Ed.D., is the project director for the Job Accommodation Network

Follow the Job Accommodation Network on Twitter at @JANatJAN